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For a child, few experiences are more magical than coming home from the local pet store with a small cardboard box or water-filled plastic bag. Inside swims or crawls or skitters a new friend, the child’s new pet, and first major responsibility.
The parent, bringing up the rear with the new tank or bowl or wire cage, breathes a sigh of relief. Many parents buy their children small animals in an attempt to teach them responsibility, believing it to be a cheaper option than adopting a new dog or cat. For millions of families, cheap, low-maintenance “starter” pets such as goldfish, hamsters, and gerbils provide children with the pet-owning experience without the pet-owning price tag.
The problem is that there’s no such thing as a “starter” animal. All living creatures have needs – physical, social, and behavioural.
Unfortunately, the custom of purchasing starter pets for young children has led to some animals being viewed as easy, low-maintenance options, when in fact, their needs are as complex as those of any other creature.
The pet trade feeds these misconceptions, resulting in animals that receive subpar care, live only a short time, and are quickly replaced by another disposable “starter pet.” For the most egregious example, look no further than the betta fish.
Betta fish, one of the most popular starter pets, are commonly sold alongside “betta starter kits.” These tiny tanks typically hold less than two gallons of water. Some lack a strong filter, and most have no heater to maintain the high water temperatures bettas need.
Some fish owners opt instead to house betta fish in small glass bowls or vases. To reach its full lifespan of five years, a betta fish needs a 2.5-gallon tank at minimum, with some aquarists recommending tanks as large as ten gallons.
Living in tiny, bare tanks with low water temperatures results in dramatically shortened lifespans for these fish, which often die a few weeks or months after being brought home from the pet store.
A large fish tank with a filter and heater. Holds over 12 gallons, ensuring health and providing a much more suitable living space for betta fish.
Goldfish, on the other hand, thrive in cool, clean water and large living spaces – a minimum of twenty gallons of aquarium per goldfish. With most aquarists recommending at least two fish to a tank to keep this active, social fish happy, goldfish tanks begin on the large end of the scale!
Add in frequent water changes and a varied diet, and these fish can easily live a decade or more, growing to an adult size of 6 to 14 inches.
This is in sharp contrast to most starter pet goldfish, placed in unfiltered bowls or tiny tanks. Without daily water changes, most goldfish in bowls quickly die of ammonia poisoning from their own excretions.
Unfortunately, many parents have become so accustomed to a revolving door of short-lived starter pets that they see no issue with a fish that lives only a few months. For perspective, if a child receives a goldfish for her eighth birthday and cares for it properly, the fish should still be alive when the child leaves school!
Small rodents such as mice, hamsters, and gerbils are another class of popular starter pets. Unlike fish, these furry creatures can be handled outside of their habitats, which makes them an appealing choice for touch-oriented young children.
However, rodents are delicate animals, and can easily become injured if handled carelessly. Pet gerbils frequently lose their tails to a painful injury called “tail slip,” caused by well-meaning young caretakers attempting to lift the animal by the tail.
To avoid an accumulation of dirty bedding that can attract maggots and flies into the home, rodent habitats also need to be cleaned frequently. This can be a physically daunting task for children, especially with larger species such as guinea pigs, whose habitats often need to be deep-cleaned two or three times a week.
To make matters worse, rodents are frequently sold with inappropriate cages or equipment, which pet owners buy in good faith.
Hamsters are active animals that need at least 450 square inches of floor space. Most commercially sold hamster cages barely reach 200 inches. Many exercise wheels sold in pet stores are too small, and cause painful back injuries as the animal attempts to run in a hunched-up position.
Large iron pet cage on wheels with three tiers.
Finally, pinewood bedding, the most common type of small animal bedding sold commercially, is suitable for larger animals like rabbits but creates strong fumes which can cause pneumonia and allergic reactions in small rodents. Pet owners who want to create safe, healthy habitats for their starter pets have their work cut out for them!
Is it unethical to buy your child a starter pet? No, but caring for any animal requires planning, foresight, and real work.
Before rushing to the pet store for a gerbil or fish, research the species your child is interested in. Develop a care plan for the animal – how often will it need to be fed? Where will you buy a tank or cage of sufficient size? Can your child perform all the cleaning and maintenance on her own, or will she need your help?
If the work seems too difficult or your child too young, consider an easier commitment, such as a starter plant. Marimo moss balls are fuzzy and appealing and can live for years in an unfiltered bowl of water.
Your child could also spend a few months growing a plant in the garden or helping care for the family cat or dog until he or she has developed the discipline necessary to care for a small animal.
Once the starter pet comes home, consider performing daily “wellness checks” with your child. Observe the animal for signs of sickness or listlessness, and ask your child to explain her daily care routine.
When was the last water change? How often is the hamster being handled? Does the hamster need a new play item? Asking these questions will help your child develop an awareness of the animal’s needs and remain committed to the daily care routine.
All of this spells extra work and expense for both the child and parent, but the result is a happy, healthy animal and a child with a strong sense of personal investment in another living creature. Children can learn empathy and responsibility without treating other living beings as disposable.