Which Small Animal Is the Best Pet for You?
How to Choose the Right Small Animal?
So, you have decided you want a small animal but aren't sure which kind would best suit your life. Below are many different ideas—some of which are more common, as well as some that are more unusual. These animals represent a range of personalities, possibilities, space requirements, and budgets, but hopefully you will find at least one or two ideas to explore further.
Axolotl are cute little amphibians that can make for great starter pets. They're about the same maintenance and habitat as a fish but you get something that's a little more unique and as you can see by the photos—they can smile.
They were originally bred in labs for scientific research but have made their way into the pet population where breeders have worked on new colorful mutations. They can be kept singly but probably prefer to be kept in pairs or groups. The smallest cage you’d want for two is a ten-gallon tank. Common colors can be on the cheap side to buy at pet stores and such, costing maybe $15 each. More unusual colors can be bought from breeders for a range of prices, some new mutation exceeding $100.
On the negative side to axolotl keeping if you obtain a male-female pair their breeding can be hard to predict but when they do lay eggs you may have 500 of the little ones to deal with and they go through a “cannibalistic stage” until they are 6 inches long. These are not animals for newbie breeders. These critters should not be confused with "mud puppies" who look very similar but get larger, tend to be too aggressive to live in pairs or groups, and who bark during the breeding season.
Chinchillas are animals that were first brought into the United States so that they could be bred for their fur. Since these animals were not being bred for pets, many of them were fierce biters. However, now that the pet market is separated almost entirely from the fur ranchers they are usually more docile than this.
Chinchillas are fairly large, fairly expensive, and fairly aloof. They can be very gentle creatures and interact well with humans, but they do not like to be cuddled. Rather, they would prefer you let them run around so they can bounce up to you.
They require fairly large cages and males do best in pairs. Females are the more aggressive sex and are OK to be housed singly. Their diet needs to be precise as too many sugar and treats can actually kill them. They are prone to depression when their cage mate dies and this can also kill them. That being said, they are lovely creatures with sweet dispositions and very soft fur. Even better is they have almost no smell at all. They do, however, require dust baths to keep their fur in good condition.
Chinchillas can be purchased from pet stores and breeders for as little as $50 or over $200, depending on color. The investment isn’t a short lived one, however, as these animals can live 15-20 years. Their breeding cycles are also slow. They tend to have 1-2 kits 1-3 times a year when they feel the time is right.
Degus (pronounced Day-goo) are related to chinchillas but are smaller. They are usually brown in color, but very recently blue ones have emerged as well as tan and piebald. They were used originally in laboratories to study diabetes and cataracts, which they are very prone to.
Like the chinchillas you cannot feed them sugary foods at all. This being said they are very social, love to hang out with their other degu buddies, and can be very interactive with their humans. They also live up to 8 years and have sporadic breeding cycles resulting in litters of up to ten babies. They sometimes make very funny noises when “talking” to each other that I find very endearing.
You can occasionally find them at pet stores for $40 or so a piece. Breeders sometimes have them for cheaper. Like chinchillas, they love a dust bath!
Some of the Sweet Vocalizations Degus Make
Duprasi, or “fat-tailed gerbils,” are fairly rare but you can sometimes find them. Depending on their lineage and the amount of socialization they get, they can be nippy or docile. They are an active creature that loves a wheel and can be kept in a ten-gallon tank. They love a dust bath to keep their coats in condition. Males can be kept happily in same-sex groups or pairs whereas females much prefer to live a solitary life, only seeing a male companion when they are in the mood to breed. They are small animals with very soft fur and can live up to five years.
A Very Nice Set Up and a Very Happy Duprasi
Dwarf hamsters come in several different species and probably hundreds of colors. Unlike their larger cousins, the Syrian hamsters, these guys generally do best in pairs or groups of any sex or combination. Be careful, though, as they are very prolific breeders! A pair can live happily in a ten-gallon tank, and if properly bred and socialized these guys can be super sweet and enjoy handling. Their diet isn’t particularly fussy and a commercial seed mix is usually fine by them.
Downfalls are that they do have an odor and don’t live particularly long, maybe two years at their max. That being said, they’re one of the cheapest pets on this list, often being found for $5-10.
Fancy mice can be fun little pets. They come in all sorts of colors, fur and ear variations. They come in curly fur, satin fur, long fur, normal fur, and no fur, just as an example.
They can live happily in a cage as small as a ten-gallon tank, and females can get along great in groups whereas males generally don't get along with each other and can be quite suited as single pets. Some love exercise wheels, and they can be very interactive and sweet with their humans.
Unfortunately, their lifespan is only 1.5-2 years, and they have an outrageous smell, particularly the males. A couple drops of vanilla in the male’s water bottle may help with this, but it’s still quite offensive and the reason why I didn’t pursue mice longer! They are prolific breeders and are often sold in pet stores as food for other animals—so they are usually very cheap, $2 or so for an adult.
Fancy rats are probably my personal favorite as they are intensely personable, energetic, and intelligent. They are intensely social animals that in the wild can have up to 500 recognizable rat friends. This is why I always suggest they should be adopted as same-sex cage mates. Females are very alert and active and males tend to be big and lazy.
Be careful when selecting a rat as a pet and if possible go to a breeder. Rats that are skittish or bite or often hard to tame down, but the ones that come friendly can be like little puppies, running to their cage door to lap at their human’s fingers. They also make for great shoulder pets.
They breed prolifically and therefore are usually on the cheap side, though some mutations from breeders can reach up to $50 or more. $5 is more likely at a pet store. Be careful, though, as bad breeding (i.e., a pet store that just breeds them as food for other pets) can lead to aggressive temperaments and a lot of health problems like tumors and cancer.
They usually live 2-2.5 years. They do have an odor, but it doesn’t come close to their fancy mice relatives. They do NOT mix well with other pets, especially those smaller or the same size as themselves. I have heard many horror stories of pet rats attacking and killing other pets such as other small rodents and birds. Just keep them away!
Five Fancy Rats Perform Tricks
Ferrets are wonderfully active creatures when they’re not sleeping, which is a good amount of the time. They require large cages and do best in pairs or groups.
Most ferrets bought from pet stores and breeders are already spayed or neutered so you don’t have to worry about babies. They will also generally be descented—but don’t let this fool as you they will still smell pretty bad.
On the positive side, they are litter box trainable and are a great pet to have that can run around the house with supervision. They will steal small objects and hide them, run at full speed, and make all sorts of adorable “dook-dook” sort of noises.
Ferrets used to have long lifespans of eight or more years; but sadly, the biggest puppy mill type breeder of ferrets, Marshall Farms, supplies almost every pet store and their bad breeding practices have shortened the ferrets' lifespan by years. Now they generally last to be two or three.
A good way to avoid this is to find a breeder with better lines. Many import ferrets from longer lived European lines. Expect to pay around $80 or more per ferret and make sure to handle them before buying. Although most ferrets are very amiable towards humans, I've also come across some truly vicious biters, as well, which is usually the result of abuse or rough handling earlier in their life.
Freshwater fish are great if you want something you can watch but don’t necessarily want something to cuddle or play with. They are great for starter pets or for the experienced hobbyist depending what you get. Many people love to breed the live bearers like guppies while other people like to have big display tanks and see how large their fish can get. You can also add plants and do landscaping. It can be as simple or complicated as you want it to be and it can take as little or as much space as you want it to. Betas are often kept alone in half gallon tanks, whereas big display fish can swim in tanks that can be hundreds of gallons.
Leopard geckos are great little starter reptiles. They don’t usually mind handling, have no odor, and can be fairly easy to breed. Though they can be handled they shouldn’t go to young children as their tails are fragile and can break off and like all reptiles they can carry salmonella. Also they require live food, usually crickets, and can live past 20 years of age. Other gecko species can be harder to maintain, breed, and many do not appreciate handling. Make sure to do your research!
Genets are for someone who has had many of the usual pets and wants to try something a little different. These animals are related to cats but have their own unique personality. Most people buy them as babies from breeders to make sure they’ll have a sweet pet that does not bite. They will get very attached to their owner, and it’s because of this that genets who need to be rehomed often become biters as they distrust new owners.
Make sure you can keep these guys for the up to 20 years you may have them! They can be kept singly but probably do better with a genet companion. They love to climb to high places and require someone who will give them the diet they need which generally consists of ferret food supplemented with fresh foods and meats. They need to be out of their cage for at least several hours a day but they are litter trainable. They are not cuddly pets, preferring instead to explore and play.
They do NOT mix with smaller animals as being natural predators they will eat them. Dogs and cats can sometimes be introduced to young or baby genets. They will need to be spayed or neutered or you will risk their behavior becoming aggressive as they reach maturity.
A Pet Genet Eats Live Fish
Gerbils are lovely in that they have very little odor. They also require little space, a ten gallon tank being fine for a pair. They do best in groups of 2-4 and can live 2.5 years or so. They can become accustomed to their owners and can generally be handled but gently so.
Believe it or not, guinea pigs were first domesticated to be a food animal for people! I don’t suggest people raise them now as chicken alternatives, but they can be good pets. They’re on the larger side, so they tend to be hardier when it comes to dealing with children. They are gentle and docile and tend not to bite. They can also be kept easily in pairs or groups and can live up to eight years. They also come in lots of colors and fur types, but they do have an odor and can make a lot of noise.
Hedgehogs are good for people who want a more advanced pet. They are solitary animals that prefer to live alone and can live in a nice rabbit-sized cage, but they are good climbers and efficient escape artists. They also need to be handled daily for the entirety of their lives or they will turn into biters. They eat mostly quality cat or kitten food but do require dietary supplements such as fresh fruits and veggies, crickets, boiled eggs, and cooked meats. Their cage should never be near drafts or in direct sunlight. They can live 3.5-9 years and will cost you probably around $80-120 to purchase.
Hermit crabs make for great first pets for small children. They’re almost one step up from a plant. They require very little space, not that much food, and are very hardy to the rough handling of children. They like to be kept in groups, which is fine, as they tend to be insanely cheap. I hear a lot of people complain they’re short-lived, but actually they can live 10-30 years in captivity. Proper care is not hard, you just have to know what it is. There are a lot of care sheets online that can be of great help.
Jirds are a very sweet relative of the gerbil that have soft fur and can be content sitting in your hand or on your lap. They even have a sort of purring behavior, which is not auditory but you can feel them happily vibrate. Females tend to like being kept as a single pet while males generally do well in same sex pairs or groups. They require little space and are almost odorless. Sadly, they’re hard to come by and probably have a slightly heftier price tag than some of the other critters on this list.
Time for a Sand Bath!
Madagascar Hissing Cockraoches
Hissing roaches make wonderful pets for children or people who want a conversation starter. They are very easy to keep and breed either in an aquarium or a big plastic bin. Make sure to put a couple inches of petroleum jelly around the side if your cockroach habitat doesn’t have a lid. This prevents escapes. However, if there is escapes they will likely die off pretty quick being a tropical non-pest species.
Hissing cockroaches are wonderful in that they’re a nice big size, easy to handle, do not bite or pinch, and display unique behaviors. When frightened, they do indeed hiss at you and males will often take hierarchical roles with the most dominant being surrounded by less dominant satellite males who gather around the borders of their territory.
They are easy to sex, too, and are generally very cheap, $1 or maybe $2 a head at a pet store. These guys can live 2-3 years and make wonderfully educational pets for children. Other bugs to consider would be giant stick insects, diving beetles, tarantulas, and giant millipedes.
Natal rats come by all sorts of different names, “soft-furred rats,” “African Pygmy Rats,” “African Soft-furred Rats,” and mistakenly sometimes even “dwarf rats.” They are very soft fluffy creatures who were first imported in the U.S. to be a more natural food source for several snake varieties.
They are fiercely social and need to be kept in groups of at least three or four or they are said to die of depression. They currently come in four different colors, either in solid or piebald, and two different eye colors. When handled young they can potentially make affectionate pets.
They do, however, reproduce at an alarming rate. They can reach maturity as early as two months of age and litters can be up to 22 pups, which is not average or normal but can happen. It’s best to keep these guys in same-sex groups. They are gaining fast in popularity.
A Natal Rat Learns a Trick
Parrots are great for someone who can handle a lot of noise, a lot of mess, and has the patience of a saint. Parrots can be very friendly and learn how to talk or they can be holy terrors with the power to lop off your fingers like GT the psycho cockatoo pictured here. It really depends.
It’s highly suggested that if you do get a parrot, get just one that is hand-fed. You may or may not be able to add other birds later on, but do expect them to bond to each other more than to you if you house them together, even if they are of a different species.
Parrots can be extremely destructive, can fly unless you clip their wings, are very loud, and can live 50-80 years, sometimes even getting past 100 years in age! They are not for the meek! They also can put a pretty big dent in your pocket to purchase. Be wary what you’re getting into with these guys!
Prairie dogs are a somewhat unique pet and many people have different experiences with them. Some people say they can be really sweet while most say they turn pretty nasty towards maturity becoming biters. They live in groups in the wild but most pet owners these days keep them singly in the hopes they’ll bond to the human rather than to another prairie dog. I’m not sure this is good for their mental health being as social as they are. They require large housing and are awake during the day.
Pygmy mice are often called “furry fish” as most owners do not actually try to handle them. There’s a good reason for this! For one, they are tiny, their bodies only measuring at most 3 inches across. For another, they are faster than lightning. They require a 5-gallon aquarium or larger to live in and generally love wheels, tubes, and things to play with. Most people who keep them keep them in mixed-sex groups and just let them breed. Their babies are the size of ants and they can form quite the community. They can live up to three years.
A VERY Nice Habitat for Pygmy Mice
Rabbits are probably the most domesticated animal on my list. They have been bred for hundreds of years for fur, meat, fiber, and pets. They come in all sorts of different breeds that range in size from the Netherland Dwarf at 2 pounds to the 14-pound Flemish Giant.
Depending on for what purpose they were bred, their temperaments can vary. They are also large enough for most vets to spay and neuter if you want a male-female pair without babies.
I personally think the sweetest bunnies I have encountered have been Holland Lops, the small lop-eared bunnies that seem to love being cuddled. Some breeds may need extra care like the angoras which need to be brushed daily to avoid matting. These guys can live up to 5-8 years if properly taken care of and are great pets for beginners and experienced hobbyists alike.
Bunny Hopping Competition
Saltwater fish are great for people who like to solve things and have a perpetual intellectual challenge. They’re far more intense to keep than freshwater fish and you have to keep on top of everything at all times.
Many saltwater hobbyists like to keep whole ecosystems which they have to build and maintain. You can keep just the fish, but what fun is that when you could have a whole ecosystem? These people take much pride in getting live rock with which to attach coral to, a “clean up crew” of crabs and various other little critters to keep the algae under control, and the fish and other creatures that swim around the corals and rocks. These can be fascinating and beautiful, eerie and intoxicating.
They make for a great educational tool if you have children, an even better conversation starter for guests, and boy, are they relaxing to watch. You can literally get lost staring into a good set up.
On the downside, a great tank like this will cost you at least $2,000—and that’s buying used equipment on the cheap. Over time, the hobby can easily cost thousands of dollars and is intensely fragile. If you don’t have a generator to back up the power your entire tank could die within an hour of the power going out if the water gets just one degree cooler than it should be.
It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it is a great thing to get into if you have the passion and intensity for it. Not to mention the people! I think the most interesting people in the animal hobby have been rat people and saltwater enthusiasts. They’ve been great and very diverse.
Short-tailed opossums are solitary animals that don’t take up a lot of space. They can be held and played with and generally don’t bite. They can live happily in a ten-gallon tank and are fairly new to the pet trade. They usually cost $100 to purchase one and breeders love when their mama possums have babies as they will cling to her back just like a regular large wild possum.
Meet Pocket the Opossum
Small birds can be fun to keep. Many, like the canaries, are very musical and make calming noises. These smaller birds like the finches and canaries can come in all sorts of colors and species. When kept in small flocks, especially larger flight cages, they can be amazing to watch—a great alternative to fish. Some people can tame finches and the like to perch on their hands but this is more unusual than not. Other small birds, such as parakeets and cockatiels, can be handled and if hand-fed generally make friendly and loving pets. Some may even learn to talk.
Spiny mice were my introduction into the “exotic pet” world. At the time, almost no one had even heard of them, and I got them directly off a guy who was importing them from Africa. This is illegal now, since the monkey pox scare, but they’re still around having been bred successfully in captivity.
They are odorless creatures who are energetic and feisty. Many love their wheels, and if you tame them they can be treated much as a pet mouse or rat. Beware though as some can be real nasty biters, and although I’ve been bitten by a lot of things I think spiny mice have the most painful bite. Their teeth are like needles, and once they have a good hold on you they’ll grind their teeth back and forth until they feel like letting go. You, in the meanwhile, will be bleeding profusely.
That being said, the tame ones can be wonderful, and the mean ones make for great “furry fish; i.e., something to watch but not really handle.
They do have a few eccentricities. For one, their tail will rip off if anyone tries to grab them with it, and their spines are stiffened hair that are somewhat hedgehog-like in texture but they don’t stab you with them. In fact, the only time I had a problem with their spines is when I somehow got one lodged under my fingernail.
These guys can live up to seven years in captivity and have started showing up with new mutations. They’re also breeding easier now in captivity, so beware! I always kept mine in groups of three or more. They seemed to do well.
Spiny Mice Enjoy a Nice Habitat
Sugar gliders are cute but not for everyone! They require a lot of specialized care including a large cage, exercise time out of the cage, a daily diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, and other fresh foods. In addition to all of this, they really smell. It’s because they eat so much fruit, but still. The smell is very sour and they soil the cage pretty quickly.
If you can handle all these things, they can make for great companions. They like time out of the cage to exercise and can be quite friendly. Sugar gliders who have not been handled can be real bad biters, though, so be careful.
Also be careful where you buy one as many pet stores get milled gliders wholesale who may not always have the greatest health. Going to a breeder is probably the best idea and since they have become more popular as pets, you should be able to find one in your area.
Just Sugar Gliders Being Cute
Syrian hamsters are probably the best-known starter pets. They are the large hamsters who generally do best living alone past six months of age. I had a group of six males once who lived together for the entirety of their lives with no problems, but I never found anyone else to have the same experience.
In any event, Syrian hamsters all come from one mother and her pups that were imported in the 1920s. This means they are severely inbred and often suffer from tumors, cancer, and the like. However they can be healthy, and when properly socialized they can be the sweetest cuddliest things you can ask for, not to mention hilarious to watch as the shove food into their mouth pouches.
They also come in hundreds of colors, coat patterns, and even hair types. Furless hamsters are often sold as “alien hamsters.” These guys can live up to five years but 2-3 is probably more the average. They don’t smell too bad, either.
Turtles and tortoises used to be common children’s pets, but I believe the practice is fading, as it should. Turtles smell really atrociously and require large aquariums or ponds, live food, and some special care, whereas tortoises can live over 50 years and are prone to nutritional deficiencies. These can make lovely pets, but I don’t suggest them as starter pets. There are lots of care sheets out there for the specific turtle or tortoise you may like to adopt, but please remember to only buy captive bred reptiles! The trade in reptiles of all sorts, tortoises included, is decimating natural populations, so please don’t support this practice.
Good Luck in Your Choice!
All and all this should be a pretty inclusive list. Do let me know if there is some common little pet I have forgotten and I will see to adding it. For all of you looking for a new pet, good luck, and I hope this article has helped you.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.