There is a myth that homeschoolers all live on farms and have more pets than a respectable zoo. While this isn’t true, the lifestyle of homeschooling does mean that there is usually more time at home to care for a pet or several. I would never be accused of having a zoo, but we have had several of the obligatory variety of pets.
Setting Realistic Expectations
The first thing to always keep in mind when choosing a pet is whether you, as the adult, are willing to do the work to care for it. No matter how responsible your kids are, they will not be purchasing food, taking the pet to the vet, or doing all the work involved in pet ownership. Even if your child can do much of the daily tasks for the pet, remember that when they are sick or spending a week at grandmother’s, it will all be on you. So, make your own list of what you cannot handle and stand by it.
Personally, I’m not up for living feeding. I have no interest in having to purchase one animal to feed to another. This is just a line in the sand I’m drawing and going to back up. I also have a rule we can’t have a pet I can’t pick up and carry if I must (fish tanks being an exception). I’ve had too many arguments in public with a toddler to tolerate having a pet that can’t be picked up and moved if I lose patience. This rule came into play when we selected a rescue dog. I decided on a dog who is about 30 pounds, similar to a toddler. I don’t want to carry him far, but I can lift him into the bathtub or the car even if he isn’t being cooperative.
What should go on your list depends on your family. Think about allergies, the amount of space in your home, and how much energy you can put into a pet. These are all personal choices and may even change over time. Something to remember is that a pet that is a horrible idea when your children are 2 and 4, might be wonderful when they’re 10 and 12.
So now, what pets to consider?
Fish are possibly the lowest commitment pet possible. They have a generally short life span and, compared to non-tank animals, are very low effort. Even if you only plan to get a single Betta fish, invest in a tank with a heater and water filter. This will not only make your fish happier but also extend the fish’s life and creates a mini science project for your kids. Learning to care for a fish tank makes a great homeschool project for an interested child. Researching which species can live together and what they eat can be its own deep dive into biology. There is also water testing and selecting aquatic plants that can make this project more interesting.
As the adult, I strongly recommend you help do the research and invest properly in equipment if your child wants to experiment with a tank. Years ago we made the mistake of putting a tank in a child’s room that had a rather loud filter that kept the child awake at night. While it can be appealing to put a tank in a bedroom, larger tanks are best kept in public parts of the house. This way, you can both help make sure the fish are fed and the tank cleaned. And the noise of filters doesn’t disturb your child’s sleep.
In general, turtles don’t really want to be pets, so far as I can tell. However, we owned one for several years, so I can give you the low down. Ours was a rescue (long story) and we weren’t quite prepared for a turtle. If you really want to have turtles, you should consider having a large enclosure for them and remember that they can live longer than you do. If you get an aquatic turtle, you will need a special reptile filter for the tank, and turtles make much more waste than fish. Tank cleaning is necessary and more than a little gross.
All that said, the turtle was generally an easy animal to keep. He swam in his tank, ate his food, and didn’t make noise beyond the filter and occasional splashes. We had him when my kids were young and they delighted in just watching him and feeding him. Occasionally on nice summer days, I took him out to swim in a kiddie pool we set up in the yard with a log in it, so he could pretend he had a pond. However, I had to keep a close eye on him. Eventually, we had several incidences involving his tank, and a friend offered to adopt him. He lived with their family for several years, and as I understand it, eventually went on to another homeschool family.
If your child wants a bunny, ferret, mouse, rat, hamster, guinea pig, or chinchilla, you should really take some time to evaluate rodents. Things to consider include how long it will live, how friendly they really are, and how much space the creature needs. We’ve owned a few of these, so I’m going to give you my perspective on them. Your mileage may vary.
Rodents generally make some kind of solid little balls or ovals of poo that you can more or less vacuum up if you are willing to do that to your vacuum cleaner. Many of them need to eat some kind of grass or hay, so if you have hay fever, don’t get a pet you can’t feed. That said, you may be able to switch what kind of grass you feed it, so if you try one and it really bothers you but you want to keep your pet, change out the alfalfa for timothy hay and see if it helps.
Hamsters and mice are small and generally short-lived and probably better for watching than handling. Their small bodies really aren’t made for human hands to cuddle. Cages with tunnels and tubes can be fun to watch, and they are generally easy to feed and clean up after. However, stories abound of their escape antics. So your tolerance for that is important. My husband and I each had a hamster as a child. They both escaped and were never seen again.
Chinchillas can jump 5 feet into the air. This means that they need a large, vertical cage with room to hop around. They require a variety of special care and more effort than many other pets in this category. While they don’t have claws and don’t tend to bite, my experience with them is that they also don’t necessarily love to cuddle with people. Oh, and that jumping thing? It means that you really need to think about where you are putting it while you clean the cage. It isn’t going to stay in a bin and if you leave it in the bathroom, it can jump into a sink or open toilet. Upon getting one wet, you have to carefully dry it so it won’t mold from the jump into the toilet. Don’t ask how I know.
Ferrets smell weird and need plenty of exercise. Those alone are reasons I don’t want one. However, if those don’t bother you, I hear many people enjoy their brand of mischief. Rabbits have sharp claws for digging. This means they can scratch small children. However, if that doesn’t concern you, they can be very nice pets, though they do make a lot of waste.
Guinea pigs are my current favorite rodent pet. We recently got two. Guinea pigs are bigger than hamsters and live longer. They can tolerate being held better, but they also require bigger cages and can be rather chatty little animals, making squeaks and peeps to you and each other. Oh, most prefer to have a cage companion, so getting two young males or females who get along generally will make them happiest. They are messy and do require regular cage cleaning and upkeep. However, they do not have claws and are not prone to bite. Ours are living in a large dog kennel that we have added adaptations to. It was cheaper than a cage sold for guinea pigs, a bit larger, and has a far larger door to lean in for both petting them and cleaning the cage.
Dogs are one of the most common pets in the United States. As a homeschooler, I have enjoyed having our dog far more than I expected, as I do feel a bit safer knowing he barks when anyone enters our home he doesn’t know. Now, there is a big difference between a dog and a puppy. Puppies are a lot of work, much like having another baby. So, if your children are very small and you don’t have the energy for another baby, a puppy might not be a good choice right now.
When my kids wanted a puppy, we worked with a rescue to find a dog that sheds very little (we have allergies), was about a year old, and already housebroken. I’d just gotten done potty training my kids and just didn’t want to do that with a dog. Okay, I’m fibbing a bit. I told my older two kids they could have a dog if they potty trained the youngest. It worked. I still assert this was parenting genius.
The other thing about getting a rescue dog that I prefer to getting a puppy is that puppies are unknown quantities. You aren’t sure how big it will be. What temperament will it have? What quirks do you not see because they are just so cute? With a rescue dog, there may still be quirks, but their personality, size, fur style (short or long, shedding or less so) are easier to determine so that you can get a dog that suits your family best.
While I am very happy with our dog, this really is a family pet and should be planned on as such. As the parent, you are going to do more walks and pet care than you plan on. And as most dogs live somewhere between 8 and 20 years, this is a long-term commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
If you feel like you need yelled at more, get a cat.
Okay, so I’m allergic and, despite that, used to live with a cat who liked to wake me up at 3 in the morning, just because. If you want a cat, you probably know what you are getting into.
Okay, honestly, bird poop is probably the grossest pet poop you can choose to deal with. Do not get any kind of bird if this is going to bother you. The poo issue alone is a reason to make sure you have a good setup outside for chickens or ducks. These really are a pet for you that your child can be around. So make sure you want to do all the work of caring for them, including building them a very nice coop.
Birds can also be very loud pets. If you like having peace and quiet, this may not be the best pet for you. For this reason, birds are also not good pets for a bedroom, as their chirping and tweeting is not likely to align with your child’s own sleeping and waking periods.
I’ve skipped over the temporary homeschool pets like raising ladybugs, tadpoles, and butterflies for release. These temporary pets have pros and cons too, but may also be a good way to dabble in learning about animals and having pets, with less commitment. If you plan to get one of these with plans to eventually release them, do some research and make sure that they are either native to your area or at least won’t harm the local plants and wildlife.
I hope I haven’t talked you out of every possible pet. However, choosing the perfect one is hard and shouldn’t be taken lightly.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.