Goldfish, dog, snake, earwig: What is the best pet for small children?

Suitable exotic pets such as certain snakes, frogs and lizards could foster empathy for the unusual, a pet shop owner says

When I was 10, I built a shrine to my first family pet. I was so upset that Digger the Jack Russell had died that I felt this was the only thing that could do justice to his 11-year life.

It featured a photograph of him, with his dates on either side, and “Rest in Peace” scrawled in red crayon underneath.

Much to my parents’ quiet mortification, I would insist that any visitors to the house pay their respects at the shrine before engaging in any coffee or chit-chat. While my family was amused by the ostentation of my grief, in retrospect, I now recognise that it was an important milestone in my life, an early experience of how to manage loss.

I always grew up with animals, and I now find myself in the position where I must decide what the right family pet for my own children is. My wife is keen on a rabbit because this is what she had as a child. I am focusing instead on what can perhaps be described as an “entry level” pet: a goldfish. My brother got one called Michael for his kids and it all seemed to work out before they got more ambitious and moved on to a dog.


“Fish are actually a wonderful pet,” argues Gillian Bird from the DSPCA (Dublin Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). “I think fish are brilliant because they have personalities. They are also reasonably contained so they won’t be running anywhere. They are something that can be entertaining, interesting to a child, but can also be kept out of harm’s way and there isn’t the ‘I want to pet my goldfish’ that you get with other pets.”

But a part of me is a little ashamed of how bland my ambitions are in this area. I start to explore more exotic pets and get in touch with Mélanie Chavanne-Lyons from Reptile Haven. This truly is a haven of exotica, on Fishamble Street in Temple Bar, Dublin, which sells everything from fire-bellied toads to Mandarin rat snakes.

Her own kids grew up around a menagerie of exotic pets, beginning with a millipede. She suggests that a good introductory pet for a family with small children would be a tortoise, a corn snake or a bearded dragon. I immediately Google “corn snake” and am met with an image of an orange-coloured serpent with a dead rat in its mouth. I am struggling to imagine how I will sell this to herself as the ideal pet for our toddlers. But Melanie encourages me to focus on the positives.

“They don’t get particularly big, on average you’re talking about 5ft,” she says. “But just from a handling point of view, it’s something that would be manageable, quite a docile animal with a good temperament on them. They’re quite predictable when it comes to food.”

The one characteristic that both Bird and Chavanne-Lyons insist on in a family pet is robustness. If the manner in which my toddler looks after her traumatised “baby” doll is anything to go on, this strikes me as sound advice.

“It’s always good to have a pet that is fairly robust ... that it’s not going to be killed if it’s squeezed too hard,” says Bird.

Chavanne-Lyon’s goes a step further. “You’re not just talking about the child’s experience, you’re definitely talking about the animal’s experience of what’s going on too. So (choose) something that’s a little bit more robust, like a bearded dragon over something like a crested gecko.”

An important consideration when choosing a family pet is the challenge of maintaining it over time. According to the ISPCA, it costs €1,100-€2,500 to maintain a dog per year, depending on the breed and the animal’s health. This price includes insurance, licence, food, vet visits, grooming and medications.

A parrot can live to the age of 60. But do I really want a pet that I have to include in my will?

What about pets that are going to create a mess in your house? Anyone who has young kids will baulk at the prospect of creating further opportunities for chaos. “The big thing that pet owners need to remember is that animals poo,” says Bird. “Quite often they puke and poo at inappropriate times.”

It sounds like she is describing babies. “Absolutely,” she says. “You can stick a nappy on a child, but you can’t really stick a nappy on a rabbit.”

Speaking of rabbits, their lifespan isn’t dissimilar to dogs. But giving consideration to how long this house guest will be with you is important, says Bird, as it will affect how the kids deal with its eventual loss. A hamster is only likely to live until two or three years of age. This could be very upsetting for a small child. On the flip side, a parrot can live to the age of 60. But do I really want a pet that I have to include in my will?

I’m curious about the ways in which keeping a more unusual pet can help to broaden a child’s mind and encourage them to be sensitive and respectful towards things that are different from ourselves.

“Animals teach kids empathy and responsibility,” says Chavanne-Lyons. “But maybe having the weirder stuff like snakes gives a bit more empathy to other weird and wonderful creatures.”

Choosing the correct family pet is an individual choice and one that demands significant deliberation

She shares an insightful story about an encounter her children recently had with an earwig. They had been playing in the garden when they came across the six-legged creature. While a neighbourhood friend attempted to chop it up, as kids will sometimes do, her seven-year-old son was instead curious and wanted to protect it.

“He was shocked that someone would want to hurt the insect,” recalls Chavanne Lyons.

She cites this story as an example of how children with exotic pets might be more respectful of the unusual. “By broadening those horizons, by having reptiles and others that might not be considered the cutest things, means that maybe they are more open to things that other people might find ghastly and creepy.”

It is clear from my search that what can begin as a simple question of which dog to get, can quickly spiral into a minefield of competing choices. However, choosing the correct family pet is an individual choice and one that demands significant deliberation.

Maybe we’ll start with a pet earwig. They’re going for free in the garden.