5 Family-Friendly Exotic Pet Options

For some families, having a dog or cat simply isn’t feasible, but some children just want to have a pet.

“There are some children that need animals, that’s how they learn to talk with people, how to play with people,” says Beth Wagner, owner of Scales and Tales Traveling Zoo in Chicago.

A veterinarian at Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital in Skokie, Dr. Maggie Wood says sometimes a family member’s allergies or where a family lives might limit pet possibilities.

But Wagner and Wood have lots of suggestions about what exotic, or non-traditional, pets might be a good fit for your family.

Average lifespan: 8 years
Pros: Wagner says ferrets are generally easy to take care of — they live in a cage, eat a pelleted diet and don’t have to be walked.
Cons: While playful, Wood says many ferrets get some kind of disease as they age, and you have to watch them carefully when they play out of their cage. Like a puppy, ferrets like to eat things they shouldn’t.

Bearded Dragon
Average lifespan: 10 years
Pros: Both Wagner and Wood recommend this variety of lizard if you child wants a reptile for a pet. Bearded dragons are good for children with allergies and are low maintenance once you get them settled into their aquarium.
Cons: Bearded dragons eat vegetables and insects, so you can’t be squeamish about handling bugs, Wood says.

Guinea Pig
Average lifespan: 5-6 years
Pros: Guinea pigs are easy to maintain, since they live in a cage, eat hay and pellets and are really friendly, Wood says. “They make a lot of vocalization when they’re excited to see you,” she says.
Cons: Guinea pigs do get intestinal problems as they age, so be sure to pay attention to their eating habits, Wood says.

Average lifespan: 20 years
Pros: If your older child wants a snake, Wood and Wagner both recommend two types: the ball python and the corn snake. Eating only once a week, snakes are very low maintenance once settled into their aquariums.
Cons: These snakes eat mice about once a week. Wood recommends buying pre-killed frozen mice that you thaw before feeding, but it takes a strong stomach.

Oscar fish

Average lifespan: 20 years
Pros: The Oscar fish is a great low-maintenance pet for families with young children or animal allergies, Wagner says. These fish are very interactive, making faces and playing with their owners. They eat fish pellets and some insects.
Cons: Oscars start out at about 2 inches and growing to about a foot or larger in a year’s time, so be prepared to get a larger tank, Wagner says.

For more pet options for children with allergies, check out Pamela Dittmer McKuen’s article on just this topic.