Planning to buy your child a “starter pet”? …

By Michelle Reynolds

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A “starter” pet needs extra special care.

After my German shepherd mix passed away, I wasn’t ready to adopt another dog. But my single-girl condo felt empty. So when I got an e-mail about two guinea pigs who needed a home, I thought, “Perfect! How hard could it be?” Looking back, I realize that Alicia Silverstone had nothing on how clueless I was.

Don’t get me wrong, Duke and Bogart are cute, charismatic and perpetually doing things that make me laugh. But I would never recommend guinea pigs to my friends with kids — for a lot of reasons.

First of all, guinea pigs put you through an approval process that’s similar to the one you use when you meet people on Tinder. Guinea pigs require you to convince them that they should like you. And even then, some will never like to be picked up or held. And after you’ve been bitten, you learn your lesson.

Second, they are messy. Like, apoopcalypse messy. Since their teeth grow constantly, they chew constantly as well. Food pellets, hay, chewing blocks and vegetables add up to an amount of waste that is … let’s just say that if Daniel Day Lewis ever made a movie called There Will Be Poop, he would film it in a guinea pig habitat. And that means washing fleece beds, ramp covers, cloth toys and towels about twice a week.

Third, if you’re thinking that smaller animals equal smaller expenses, think again. I spend more money to meet the needs of these 2-pound animals than I did to feed a 75-pound dog. I’ve also found that vet bills tend to go way up when you tack on the word “exotic.”

This is probably a good place to mention that around the same time that I adopted Duke and Bogart, I also began adopting mice rescued from hoarding and other horrible situations. Mice are incredibly cool. Gus loved to curl up on my shoulder while I worked on my laptop, and Valentine’s construction projects were so impressive that I was always buying him building materials. But mice come with their own unique needs and their own costly medical expenses.

For one thing, their lifespan is just one to two years, and that meant a lot of end-of-life vet visits for mine. My mouse Jaq developed an upper respiratory infection, a painful illness that mice are highly susceptible to. Mice can sometimes recover from URIs, but it’s imperative that they get veterinary care right away. Sadly, however, despite daily treks to the vet for oxygen treatments and help getting medicine into his tiny mouth, Jaq didn’t pull through.

Mice are also nocturnal and have to sleep all day to stay healthy. So from dawn to dusk, I was as quiet as … well, you know. And for those of you who haven’t yet told your new husband who just finished a year of teaching and is starting summer break that he needs to be quiet all day long so the mouse can sleep … you will get a kick out of his facial expression when you do.

We were able to work it out with a closed door and a white noise machine, but that just underscores my point: Even small animals have specialized needs. They are complex individuals. If they get too cold, gerbils go into hibernation. Rabbits don’t like to be picked up and may struggle so hard that they can break their back. Betta fish are carnivorous and need to eat insects and larvae. A major study just found that the main cause of death for captive hamsters is stress caused by dissatisfaction with their living conditions.

Profit-driven pet stores market these and other animals as “starter pets” and sell them like cheap toys. Many don’t even provide information about proper care. It’s easy to see why a quick scroll through Petfinder brings up so many who’ve been cast out of their homes. Kids get bored and lose interest — no surprise — or parents weren’t ready to invest the considerable amount of time and money that these animals require. And the ones who make it to shelters are the lucky ones — many of their cohorts don’t survive.

If you and any other adults in your household are ready to provide the distinct habitat, nutrition, grooming, exercise and veterinary care that a small animal needs, you’re in luck because there are many small animals eager to find a permanent home with someone who cares. And if the kids want a companion who will play with them, there are many dogs and cats waiting for homes, too.