By Marc Morrone
Tribune Content Agency
Q: My grandchildren are now 10 and 8-years-old, and I want to get them some kind of pet so that they will learn a bit of responsibility. The landlord will not allow dogs or cats, but said they could get any pet that stays in a cage. So we were thinking of a bird or rodent and wondered what you suggest. Their parents both work so it would have to be something with low maintenance. - Fran Williams, Arlington, Va.
A: This is one of those questions that has no right or wrong answer, however, I do have two Morrone rules here that weigh in on and affect the answer:
1. A child should never be expected to learn responsibility from caring for a pet - being a pet owner is supposed to be fun! Responsibility is learning to do unpleasant tasks for no immediate reward.
Petkeeping can teach a child better time management skills, but it really should encourage a child's fascination of the natural world rather than the omnipresent virtual one. A child should never think that caring for a pet is not a pleasant task.
2. The best pet for a child is whatever pet the child's parents have time to care for. In a busy household sometimes it is not practical for children to be 100 percent in charge of a pet's needs. In spite of a child's best intentions, when children try to clean a cage or cut up fruits and vegetables for a pet to eat, then the children make such a mess. In turn, that creates more work and household drama for busy parents to deal with.
With all that being said, now I can give you some options.
1. Hamsters and gerbils are the easiest to care for. Being desert animals they urinate very little and the cage stays dry and cleaner than other pets; a twice weekly cleaning will suffice. They are very content just to be alive, and if nobody has the time to take them out for a day then that is fine with them.
However, they do not make any noise, which some children find hard to relate to, so children can lose interest in them quickly. From a parent's point of view, though, no pet is easier to keep.
2. Guinea pigs are extremely responsive to children - they recognize each child as an individual and are as sentient as dogs and cats. The fact they can vocalize to children with their squeals keeps up a child's interest and concern for the animal.
However, they do need a lot of care. The cage must be cleaned daily and they need daily fresh vegetables and fruits. This may be too much for some parents to keep up with. Though, if the time is available then this is probably the best small mammal pet.
3. Birds. When you first think of a bird for a child, the first thought is a parakeet. However, they are small and fast, and while they will learn to lose their fear of a child, they really do not like to be touched or petted. It is a lot for a little bird, like a parakeet, to allow our big hands on its little body.
A better choice may be conures - a group of small parrots about 8 inches long. The most popular are sun conures and green cheek conures - they love to socialize with children and will actively seek them out. They commonly beg children to pet them, creating a strong bond with the child.
However, they also need daily care: Cage cleaning, and washing of food and water dishes, which may just be too much for some households. They are expensive as well, costing between $300 and $500 each. They do have a longer lifespan - I know many that are well into their 20s.
4. Bearded dragons. If a child is allergic to fur or feathers, then the bearded dragon is a great pet. They are one of the few reptiles that are sentient, and recognize and react to humans as individuals. They enjoy being held and petted by children.
They do not need daily cage cleaning, but they do eat live crickets and vegetables, which can be a bit complicated. As with the conures, the purchase price of a dragon is high and the equipment to keep their cage warm is expensive. They do live a long life, I know many that are more than 10 years old.
As with all reptiles there is a remote chance of their passing salmonella to children, as well, so young petkeepers need to be prompted to wash their hands after handling them.
Q: My cat thinks she is a seal - she loves to splash in water and she makes a mess of her water dish by putting her paws in the water and splashing it all over the room until the dish is empty. Our vet told us to try one of those drinking fountains for cats that pour the water into the dish via a little waterfall, but this just gave her more water to throw around the room. Do you have any suggestions? - Stephanie Adams, Boulder, Colo.
A: Been there, done that. I had a cat like yours once and there was no way to dissuade her from this.
Eventually I just waved the white flag of defeat and put her water dish in the shower stall and left the door to it open. She was then able to splash all she wanted and all the water stayed in the stall.
Marc Morrone has kept almost every kind of animal as a pet for the last half-century and he is happy to share his knowledge with others. Although he cannot answer every question, he will publish many of those that have a general interest. You can contact him at email@example.com; please include your name, city and state.
This was printed in the December 25, 2016 - January 7, 2017 edition.