Owning a pet can be a defining moment of childhood. It can help shape a child's attitudes towards animals for the rest of their life, says veterinarian David Gething, of Creature Comforts www.creaturecomforts.com.hk However, when it comes to deciding what the most suitable pet would be, he advises parents to do their research.

"Different pets have varying benefits and requirements, but before anything else, I'd recommend families consider the age of their children, how much interaction the kids will have with the pet and the degree of responsibility the parents want to take for the general care of the pet."

Dogs and cats require a lot of care and maintenance but pets such as fish and hamsters demand less work. However, they still need love and attention, of course.

Fish can be a great start for children, says Gething. "They can teach care and responsibility without needing large amounts of time and upkeep. The equipment required for a simple tank is also fairly cost-effective, and easy to set up."

Instead of a typical goldfish, Gething suggests getting a betta, also known as Siamese fighting fish. "The males are beautifully coloured and have long flowing fins. They are also one of the few fish that are able to breathe air, and don't need a tank with aerators."

Care and feeding are simple, he says, and they need just a small aquarium. Despite the name, they are placid creatures, as long as they are kept alone. And always use de-chlorinating drops to treat tap water before using it in the tank, he adds.

Tortoises and terrapins also make good starter pets. "There are a number of types of tortoise and terrapin, some of which live on land and some need water to swim in, so make sure to check the requirements."

They have widely varying diets and can require equipment such as heat lamps. "They are generally fairly easy to care for, and are hypoallergenic, but it should be remembered that tortoises can carry and transmit salmonella, so parents should always ensure children wash their hands after handling or play," Gething says.

The next step up are what the vet refers to as "pocket pets" - mice, gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs or rabbits. "These can be a great stepping stone between the less cuddly fish or tortoise and a pet requiring a much greater commitment, such as a dog or cat."

Pocket pets are usually kept in an enclosure, so one of the key things is to ensure that they have enough space to sleep, eat and play in. The pen should have bedding such as straw or hay, food and water bowls, and, in the case of mice, gerbils and hamsters, a wheel to exercise on.

"All of these pocket pets should be handled gently and stroked regularly to keep them hand tame and affectionate. People are often surprised how intelligent and personable pocket pets can be, recognising their owners and performing simple tricks. Rabbits can even be toilet trained with a little persistence."

It is important to know that mice, gerbils and hamsters tend to live for only a couple of years, whereas rabbits and guinea pigs can live up to seven years. Gething adds that chinchillas, although they look similar to rabbits, have more demanding requirements for care and may not be suitable for children.

Finally, the faithful family dog or cat. Cats are generally lower maintenance than dogs, the vet says, not needing walks and being easier when it comes to toileting needs, but they still require much more care than smaller pets. "Having a dog or cat is generally a whole family job, and requires greater commitment from all members of the house."

Dogs are often better with younger children, says the vet, and are more accepting and even enthusiastic about playing with children. "Be sure to research breeds carefully, as some are much more suited to being around children. Good choices include Labradors, golden retrievers and Jack Russell terriers, but it's all about the individual and there are many other good breeds, too."

It's not a case of one size fits all, Gething says. "Make sure you spend time considering what kind of pet is suitable, what you are looking to get from them, and what kind of home you can provide for them. And, of course, be sure to remember, a pet is for life." 

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