Points on Pets

Thinking Outside the Cat-and-Dog Box

My six-year-old daughter has recently been asking for a pet hamster, after meeting one at a local Blessing of the Pets a couple of weeks ago.  I had to admit, the hamster in question, Fluffy, was absolutely adorable—docile, soft, worthy of his name, and fit in the palm of my hand.  My first instinct was to run out to PetSmart and get one the next day.  But I resisted, and told my daughter we needed to do some research first.  I grew up in an animal-friendly house and, at one time or another, I think we owned (besides cats and dogs), frogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, betta fish, goldfish, and a hermit crab.  Oh, and of course the requisite sea monkeys ordered off the back of a cereal box!


Owning these kinds of animals provided lots of joy and some tough life lessons, the most powerful one being not to take responsibility for another life lightly or hastily. So when trying to decide whether or not we should adopt a hamster, I started doing some research.  I looked online, asked friends, posted a message to a local Facebook group of parents, and in the end decided a hamster was not a good idea for us at this stage of life.  I told my daughter she might want to just snuggle more with the pet she already has, our dog Polly!


If you’ve been thinking about getting a smaller, less-popular pet, you might be wondering which is your best bet.  First of all, I’d caution you against adopting any of these pets—or other exotics—from large pet expos and pet stores unless you have researched the seller or breeder and know that they operate responsibly and with love and proper veterinary care for the animals they offer.  (The same caution of course goes for adopting or purchasing cats and dogs as well!)


Here’s what I discovered when I started researching; take a look at these brief overviews as you make the most educated decision for your household.


FISH:  Many kinds of fish are great “starter pets” for young children—or adults!  Siamese fighting fish (bettas) are great one-fish-in-a-small-bowl pets. They don’t need a filter and are pretty low-maintenance.  Same goes for goldfish.  Gouramis and dwarf gouramis are also great fish to have; they are pretty peaceable among their own kind.  The flame dwarf gourami, which has an orange body and neon-blue dorsal fin, is a nice fish for eye-catching color.  Just be prepared to clean their bowl at least once a week on average.  And know you’re not going to be able to curl up with Nemo on the couch on those long winter evenings…


FERRETS: Those who own ferrets love them to pieces.  Those who don’t swear they smell horrible and are no fun.  You might see if you know anyone who owns one so you can see for yourself before you adopt one, since they require a lot of care, similar to dogs and cats, and live about 8-11 years.  Ferrets are soft, snuggly, and when well-socialized are super-sweet, friendly, playful, and inquisitive.  They do need to be out of their cage for at least two hours a day because they are social animals; they can be trained to do tricks and are quite intelligent.  Many people are not bothered by a ferret’s smell, but it is pretty strong and musky.  They also can be destructive and like to steal things, so you will need to devote a good deal of time to keeping them supervised and occupied.


GUINEA PIGS:  These guys are super cute and fun to play with.  They also require a good amount of care, similar to ferrets—exercise and time out of the cage every day, a large cage with the appropriate bedding materials, and veterinary care.  They might not be the best choice for families with young children as they can get injured if play gets too rough. But they rarely bite and can make great companions, as long as they well-socialized and receive enough attention and interaction from you.


HAMSTERS:  I decided against owning a hamster at this point in our lives because the people I spoke to—all of whom had hamsters and human children—said they bite frequently, are nocturnal and thus can keep you up at night but be “boring” during the day, and are the kind of pet whose owners tend to lose interest.  One person also said they are escape artists who frequently got out of their cage and got lost in the house.  However, I could have gotten many hamsters for free, along with their cages and supplies, since so many people were ready to say au revoir to their little rodent friends!  On the up side, those who love hamsters say they are great “pocket pets” and are absolutely precious because of their tiny size and inquisitive nature.  They don’t require as much care as guinea pigs or ferrets, but you’ll probably want to skip getting a hamster unless you have a place where you can put his cage so that he doesn’t keep you up at night.


So, especially with the holidays coming up, remember to think long and hard—and do your research—before adopting any kind of pet.  I’m glad I did!


Ashley Denham Busse has worked part-time for Doggywalker.com since 2006.  Doggywalker.com is a professional pet-sitting company located in Old Town Alexandria, celebrating more than 12 years of providing daily walks and customized in-home pet care. Visit http://www.doggywalker.com or email info@doggywalker.com. 


~ Written by: Ashley Denham-Busse

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