A report earlier this fall from a group of USA pediatricians cautioned parents against keeping exotic pets in a home with young children. The doctors involved cited Salmonella, as well as possible bites and scratches, as reasons to avoid contact between children and reptiles, hamsters, baby chicks, hedgehogs, or other exotic pets. The original report encouraged parents with exotic pets to talk to a pediatrician and even consider rehoming their pets.
However, many parents who have happy, healthy children as well as exotic pets disagree with this recommendation. So do I, and here’s why.
Every Pet Is A Family Pet
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Small children should not be expected to take sole responsibility for the care of any pet. Assigning a child a task related to pet care is a great idea. Expecting a child to commit to several years of exclusive responsibility for the care of a living creature is not. Every pet should be a family pet, with adults prepared to take primary responsibility for its care.
If the pet is a family pet with an adult handling most of its care, there is no reason for children to perform pet care tasks that require the most meticulous hygiene, like changing the water in an aquatic turtle’s tank, or cleaning the bars of a bird’s cage.
Supervision and Cleanliness
Most pet-related illnesses can be prevented with three simple steps: Supervise children any time they handle pets, keep pets and their habitats clean, and ensure that children wash their hands with antibacterial soap each time they handle an exotic pet.
Do not allow children’s faces to come into contact with exotic pets. Children are prone to kissing pets or rubbing their cheeks on a pet’s soft fur unless they are specifically told that pets may not touch their face at any time. If your pet has been known to bite or scratch, you should hold the pet while your child watches it or strokes it gently. Some exotic pets, particularly some individual parrots, will not adjust to handling or petting by children. If your exotic pet is consistently uncomfortable and upset when your child attempts to interact with it, accept children can be frightening to animals, and either consult an animal behaviorist for help socializing your pet to children, or stop attempting to force your pet to interact with kids.
Allergies, Infections, Scratches, and More
Children get dirty, get hurt, and get sick. When these things happen, their immune systems practice responding to a minor threat, and become better able to tell the difference between a genuine threat and a false alarm. Studies have shown that children raised with pets are less likely to develop allergies or asthma. Some evidence also suggests that children raised around animals also have a reduced risk of autoimmune disease.
For example, take hedgehogs: The article released warning parents against mixing kids and exotic pets specifically mentions that being poked by hedgehog spines can cause a bacterial infection resulting in nausea, a rash, and mild fever. What it doesn’t mention is that after you’ve had that small, pink rash from hedgehog quills a couple of times, you’re immune for several months. I’ve owned hedgehogs since I was 10 years old, and I haven’t had a rash since a couple months after I got my first hedgehog.
If your child happens to have serious allergies or a depressed immune system, of course it’s not a great idea to expose them to unknown bacteria and allergens. However, a healthy child can handle the occasional sneeze, poke, bite, or scratch, and it’ll be good for their immune health in the end.
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. If you’re worried about your child’s exposure to exotic pets, consult a pediatrician. This is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. It’s just my personal opinion and experience.