- Choose a small, domestic bird, like a cockatiel, parakeet, or canary, which won't hurt your child if it bites him (which is unlikely). These birds are fairly easy to care for and are less likely to spread parasites or bacteria than larger, imported ones.
- Don't let your child hold the bird; if he wants to pet it, you hold it and let him stroke its back.
- The cage should be cleaned daily -- by an adult. Wear rubber gloves, then wash them and your hands thoroughly afterward.
- Teach your child never to tap on the cage or stick any objects into it.
Tropical fish are among the safest, most colorful, and low-maintenance pets, but even they can present problems. * Tell your child never to put his hands in the tank. The water may contain salmonella or other harmful bacteria. * Don't buy predator fish, such as piranhas. * As with all pet foods (and medicines), store fish food and any chemicals for the tank out of your child's reach. Teach your child not to overfeed fish.
About 3 percent of U.S. homes have a turtle, snake, or lizard, and more than 70,000 people a year contract salmonella from contact with these pets. "Don't believe pet-store certificates that claim an animal is salmonella-free," says Gary Smith, M.D., director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "A reptile can test negative for salmonella one day and the next day it may show up in its feces." Because salmonella can be especially severe in young children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you keep reptiles out of homes with children under 5. If you do have a reptile, keep the animal and its cage away from the kitchen and food.
Little critters like hamsters, Guinea pigs, and rabbits are gentle -- and easier because the mess is contained in an enclosed space. To keep risks to a minimum:
- Choose your pet carefully -- hamsters, Guinea pigs, and rabbits, for example, enjoy being handled more than gerbils and mice.
- Before you bring an animal home, make sure it has no signs of "wet tail" (wetness near its bottom) or labored breathing; either could mean it has a bacterial infection.
- Handle the animal with your child for at least 15 minutes a day. "Many people regard small pets as 'starter' pets. They put the hamster in the cage, clean the cage once a week, and don't pick the animal up much, so it never gets used to being touched and is more likely to bite or scratch," says Shain.
- Teach your child to hold his pet securely but very gently. "Kids can easily drop or squish a small pet, or pull its fur," says Bonnie Beaver, a veterinarian and professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University in College Station. When the pet is being held, offer it a treat -- like a baby carrot or a blueberry -- so it's a pleasant experience.
- Keep the cage in a place where you can supervise the animal -- and your child.
- Avoid ferrets or wild "pets," such as raccoons, chinchillas, and hedgehogs. "Ferrets have been known to attack children," cautions Beaver.