Consider these lesser-known companions...
Motto: We are two evolutionary leaps away from world domination.
Pros: Extremely smart. Affectionate companion. Curious and cute. Rats and owners tend to become very bonded, as rats love to be petted and will happily sit on and groom their humans. They love play wrestling (think: puppies) and once bonded, will run expectantly to their cage door when they know you are home. (again: puppies)
Cons: Extremely smart. Move quickly and can chew through many substances, which keeps life in a state of ‘Oh my God, where is the rat?!’ excitement. Short life span (2-5 years) which is something to keep in mind when purchasing for younger children.
Things to know: With genetic makeup that is (eerily) similar to Homo sapiens, rats need friendship and love. Female rats do best in pairs. Male rats are generally calmer than females but can become aggressive when housed together (unless neutered), so a solo male rat will need lots of human company. Rats also need daily stimulation – plan to set up an indoor or outdoor area where they can explore the territory. Keep the area free of valuables and wires and protect surfaces with a washable cloth, as they mark territory enthusiastically and often (last time: puppies).
Motto: Daytime: Leave me alone. Evening: Leave me alone, I’m running.
Pros: Very, very cute. YouTube research suggests that hedgehogs enjoy cutely pushing a ball, getting their cute faces stuck in toilet paper tubes, and adorably looking for ways to leap off the couch to certain death.
Cons: Covered in 7,000 sharp spines. Easily startled. “They require daily maintenance and care, but the rewards make it worth it,” says Jasper Sha, a scientist, Deep River resident and the proud owner of Eugene Pricklepants. “I didn’t name him,” Sha quickly adds. “Anyway, they need to be approached with slow, gentle, calm movements. They do recognize [their owners] by scent and hearing but it’s important to handle them a lot when they’re young.” He likens the experience to caring for a small, temperamental emperor: “It’s adorable when they play or fall asleep on you, but they need a lot of personal maintenance. Sometimes the attitude is like, ‘I shall not be leaving the palace today; place the food in the trough.’”
Things to know: Baby hedgehogs are called ‘urchins.’ (Awww!) Hedgies are not native to the U.S.; they hail from warmer climes and need a stable environment around 73-76 degrees. When temps drop lower, they can go into hibernation torpor. In this state, Sha explains, immunity drops and hedgehogs in captivity become particularly prone to illness. Be sure to invest in a proper wheel, as running is a favorite nocturnal activity.
Motto: Hey is that food? No? OK, how about that?
Cons: Are you even zoned for this? No, seriously. You should probably check.
Pros: They are useful: One of the few pets which earns its room and board by producing eggs, and the shells can be used for compost. The poop also can be composted, which is good news because there will be a lot of it.
They are easily won over: Chickens love food. If you are carrying around a bag of chicken food, you will have chicken friends for life, or at least an enthusiastic and vocal chicken fan base.
They are fun: Chickens are one of the few animals that waddle (beside penguins), and you’re definitely not zoned for penguins.
Things to know: Chickens kept outside will require a protected space, as natural predators (such as fox, raccoon, etc.) are common. These predators can also dig, so a pen placed on earth will need a foundation. They are social creatures, so plan to house four or more birds. They need food and fresh water daily, and also need a safe, fenced-in area to run. Once the garden season is over, you have a cleanup crew! Chickens will consume any damaged and unusable produce as well as the roots of weeds.
The leopard gecko
Motto: <very, very slow blink>
Pros: Adorable. Like owning a small, wingless dragon. Quiet, interesting looking, and low maintenance.
Cons: Like all pets, your gecko needs to be consistently socialized to humans when young, or you will wind up with a science exhibit as opposed to a pet. They prefer stalking and eating live food so plan on swinging by the pet store to pick up crickets a few times a month. Hearing the crickets chirp away, oblivious to their fate is admittedly a little diabolical, but it’s also, frankly, very relaxing.
Things to know: Hopefully you like your gecko, because you will still have it after your kids leave for college. Leopard geckos can live for up to 20 years, so prepare for a long-term relationship. As desert natives, they require temperature maintenance as well as a cool, moist place where they can shed their skin, which your kids will find fascinating. If that sounds repulsive, take heart! You won’t have to worry about cleaning up the skin for reasons we find ourselves unable to commit to paper. Anyway, to provide the ideal temperature you’ll need a heat lamp, thermometer and hygrometer. It’s a good idea to keep an extra heat lamp bulb on hand. They also like having structures to climb on and hide under, and you can keep two together (but make sure they’re female and have plenty of room. Girls need their space.)
This article appeared in the winter issue of Connecticut Family magazine.