Deciding on a good first pet for a child is a highly individualized process. A very young child may not be able to respect the safety of any pet, and may unwittingly handle the pet in ways it doesn’t like, or that are harmful to it. Sometimes already having a pet in the house, like a cat or dog, before the baby comes home, or getting a pet when the child is an infant is a better introduction to pets than waiting until the child is older.
One also must consider that pets tend to have a shorter life span than humans, sometimes much shorter. This means you are also introducing your child to the concept of death, possibly sooner than one wants to. Most children’s first experience with death is through the death of a first pet; so you may want to choose a pet with a reasonably long life span and be prepared to deal with this situation.
For this reason, pets like certain types of fish and hamsters tend not to be good choices. Establishing fish can be problematic, and though their care is normally fairly easy once you have their water right, some fish don’t tolerate changes very well. On the other hand, a fish can’t be cuddled or held, and a child may be slightly less attached to it. It also keeps the child from mishandling the fish, one would hope, since the fish stays in its environment, separated from the child.
Some people recommend the chinchilla as a good first pet. Actually chinchillas can be a bit nervous, and may not respond well to a younger child. Hamsters may enjoy being held, but they do tend to suffer from a shorter life span. Some, if mishandled initially, may not have great personalities. They are also nocturnal.
A gerbil typically lives longer than a hamster, and is diurnal. Thus they may want to play during the day. Rats have the advantage of being trainable, and are quite smart. They can become quite attached to owners and may be a cuddlier first pet than other choices. They are also quite clean, when purchased from a reputable source.
A bird may also make a good first pet. Bear in mind that some birds, like parrots, literally require a lifetime commitment as they can live for 60-70 years. Parrots also may become vicious if mishandled. A very young child may not understand this, and may unintentionally shape a very poor pet personality.
If your child does not appear allergic to cats or dogs, these tend to be good first pets. Especially if you adopt a cat or dog that is not a baby, and has been raised around children, these animals can provide companionship, entertainment, and may be particularly tolerant of children. Cats tend to be a little more aloof, and you should not adopt a Ragdoll cat for a child, as they are more subject to having broken bones, since they don’t react to being mishandled.
A dog can be an excellent first pet. You may want to look at breeds of dogs that are well known for being good with children. One should probably steer away from dogs that can easily overpower young children, as this may scare or upset the child. Mid-size breeds tend to have more mild temperaments, but this may again vary.
Even though the animal you select is the child’s first pet, the adult in the home still should maintain responsibility for the animal. If you plan to adopt a first pet, you can naturally teach your child about pet care, but don’t expect a child to rigidly follow pet care. If the child forgets to feed a pet before leaving for a day, don’t punish the pet in order to teach the child a lesson. Act as back up care, and be especially watchful at first as your child learns to care for the new pet. If a child fails to care for the pet in some essential way, be sure you are there to provide that care.