They can't afford a cat or dog. What's the next best option?

Cheapest Pets Suitable for a Child

by Dollar Stretcher Contributors

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Cheapest Pets Suitable for a Child

My eight-year-old daughter has been begging for a dog or cat for some time, but we simply cannot afford one right now nor do I see it happening in the next few years. Does anyone have any suggestions for small pets that are suitable for a child that are cheap to feed and care for? She does not want a fish, but she likes all animals. I think she would like to care for any type of animal or reptile. I'm just interested in knowing the monthly feeding costs and then any costs associated with a cage/habitat or possible vet costs. Thanks so much!

Start Small

I own several various types of animals, and in my experience, your daughter should start with a small mammal like a hamster, mouse, or rat. An aquarium can make a good home for these guys and different size tanks are readily available for cheap on sites like Craigslist. These animals don't take up much space, are cheap to feed, and can be very sociable. Another plus is that they don't have special heat, humidity, and lighting requirements like most reptiles.

Foster for Your Local Humane Society

You can foster pets from the local Humane Society. You can do cats or dogs. They provide the pet food and the pet has already had an examination from a vet before coming to your home. I think other rescue organizations do this too. After a while, maybe you will decide to keep one of the animals.

Rats as Man's Best Friend?

Most people don't like the idea of rats as pets, but they're actually my family's small pet of choice. As long as you clean out their cages once a week, they're quiet, smart, can be trained to come to their name, can learn various tricks, and will ride on your child's shoulder. Beyond the cage, bedding, and food, they're pretty inexpensive. Obviously, they need a larger cage than a hamster or gerbil, but they are very affectionate and curious.

My daughter had one that used to ride on her shoulder when she biked over to friends' houses and was let out frequently to explore my daughter's room, and would come out when she called the rat's name.

Obviously, you should get a domesticated, just-weaned rat from a breeder.

Let One Come for a Visit

We had this same problem. Then I saw an ad in the paper requesting help fostering a dog for a year. The owner helped with food and agreed to pay vet bills. The animal had all her shots, and she even provided a dog house, leash, and food. It was a wonderful experience. Our children did not feel awful when the dog went home because they expected it, and when it was over, we could afford a dog for our children. Fostering is something I still do now and then. I'm older and travel, so I can help out with fostering a dog on my schedule and without undue expense.

Related: 15 Ways to Make Veterinary Bills More Affordable

Volunteer for Snuggles

Have you thought about letting her volunteer at your local shelter? She would get all the love she wants and learn to care for animals at no expense to you other than transporting her to and from the shelter. The shelters in our area always need help. It would be a win-win for everybody. In addition, she would get to experience a lot of breeds to help her decide which she likes in advance of the day she gets one of her own.

Cats Are Cheaper Than You Think

Cats are actually about the cheapest pets you can get. You could get away with having as little as food, litter, litter scoop, and a litter box. A 15-pound bag of high quality food costs about $20 at Costco and would last two to three months for a single cat. Scoopable litter costs a bit more than the regular kind but doesn't need to be completely replaced as often. Just scoop the poop and pee once or twice a day. To properly care for small animals costs quite a bit more from buying a habitat, feeding stations, non-harmful substrate (many of the kinds available can injure them in various ways), lighting, specialized food, and so on.

Related: Comparing the Top 5 Pet Loyalty Programs

A Hermit Crab Might Be Fun

Some kids might like a hermit crab. They can even pick them up. Any cheap container will do. Just google on how to care for it.

Surprising, But True

I was in the same boat when my daughter was young. She was going to settle for a mouse, but when we got to the pet store, the sales person said that mice were not great pets and that we should look at rats. My daughter wound up picking out a white rat, and I have to say Snowflake was one of the best pets we have ever had (we have had every reptile and pet you can imagine)! She cuddled in my daughter's lap while watching TV and followed her everywhere. It was a very clean animal with minimal cleanup and ate food we got in the pet aisle in the grocery store and fresh vegetables. The downside is they don't live very long. As a warning, the second rat we got turned out to be pregnant, so we ended up with five! Males would be the safe way to go.

Save on your pet's medications at 1-800-PetMeds.

Guinea Pigs Are Perfect Pets

Guinea pigs are great for kids. They are interactive and love to snuggle. They're not biters (hamsters and gerbils tend to bite) and are large enough for young children yet small enough for apartments, etc. While they thrive on attention, they withstand alone time, too.

Initial set up of a decent size cage, water bottle, feeding dish, and bedding is the most expensive investment. Vet visits are rare. If fed and exercised properly, they are rarely ill. Nails do need trimming and they need to gnaw to keep teeth in proper condition. Cages need to be cleaned at least every four to five days as they use one corner as a bathroom, though I seriously recommend scooping that area daily.

They love most fruits and veggies but need guinea pig pellets as main staple diet. Whistles and chirps are their sounds, so they are not overly loud. They are inquisitive and can be outside (even on a harness/leash) if supervised.

Guinea pigs are perfect pets for kids! Google them for more information.

That Rascally Rabbit

I would suggest a rabbit. They are not that expensive and not too small in size. Their food is not overly expensive because they do not eat much. They also are easy to keep clean. The biggest purchase for them is a cage of some kind. However, you can find them on Craigslist and at thrift stores. They can live up to eight years, so they have some growing years with your children. The actual cost of the rabbit is not bad. You can find them for as low as $15. My daughter loved hers when she was little.

Bearded Dragon as a Pet

A bearded dragon is an extremely easy pet for which to care. Once you equip the cage, they eat collard greens, domain lettuce, and red peppers. Also, they are interesting to watch and learn about.

Reviewed October 2017

Take the Next Step:

  • Looking to get a pet? Here are some more tips for bringing a pet into the family inexpensively.
  • Don't let your pets take such a bite out of your budget! The Dollar Stretcher's Guide to Frugal Pet Care can show you smart ways to love your pet while spending less.
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