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Uncommon Pets for Families

Picking the perfect family pet, whether furry, feathery, scaly or slimy, is easier than ever.

By Kara Giannecchini and Bridget Mallon

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Adopting from a shelter used to mean one decision: dog or cat. Now there are plenty of options, and choosing among them can be as simple as clicking a mouse. Petfinder.com, a website with approximately 345,000 adoptable animals, offers listings from shelters across the nation plus an online learning center with extensive tips. Betsy Banks Saul, cofounder of Petfinder.com, recommends honestly assessing your family's lifestyle to decide which pet is best for you.

Birds

Personality: Because they're super smart, birds require lots of mental stimulation, such as learning games (try hide-and-seek) and tricks (like ringing a bell on command), to thrive. They're also very loyal.

Care: Birds spend most of their time caged but should be let out to ward off boredom. How often depends on the breed.

Habitat: Keep them in the largest cage possible, but make sure they can't slip their head out between the bars.

Best Pet For: Social people who like to chat. African Gray and Amazon parrots are considered the most talkative breeds.

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Guinea Pigs

Personality: These critters love attention and enjoy putting on a show. They do best with company: Consider buying two of the same sex so they can be playmates and companions.

Care: Guinea pigs are vegetarians. In addition to food pellets, they eat fresh hay, veggies and fruit.

Habitat: The cage must provide a minimum of 4 square feet per guinea pig to ensure there is enough room for nesting, food and water, and relieving themselves.

Best Pet For: Those who can't necessarily commit to a dog or cat but still want something cuddly and playful.

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Turtles

Personality: Highly individualized personalities distinguish these reptiles: Some are reserved and shy away from people; others love to play and know when their favorite person enters the room.

Care: When not confined, turtles need constant supervision, as they can slink off or crawl under fences quite easily.

Habitat: They need a 30- to 50-gallon aquarium and 12 hours a day of light from a UV lamp. Some require both dry land and an area for swimming.

Best Pet For: People who work long or late hours, or families with lots of extracurricular activities who are frequently away from home.

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Iguanas

Personality: Cold-bloodedness is a physical—not a character—trait. Iguanas can recognize people by voice, sight and smell, and they may actually benefit from interacting with humans.

Care: Iguanas require specialized equipment, such as heating lamps, since warmth and sunshine are a must.

Habitat: Adult iguanas should be kept in a large enclosure about 12 feet long by 6 feet wide by 6 feet high. They also require humidity, so a daily misting of their cage is important.

Best Pet For: Families with older kids, not young children, since iguanas can become aggressive if they feel cornered or threatened.

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Snakes

Personality: These reptiles are incredibly perceptive: Their movements may be slow, but these slinky pets respond in specific ways to different people. Although they aren't cuddly creatures, they can build bonds with those they interact with.

Care: Be prepared to feed them live prey such as mice or other small rodents. You can get frozen mice, but some snakes are not accustomed to that form of food.

Habitat: Keep them in a large aquarium with a heating system to regulate their temperature; snakes can grow fast so be prepared to upgrade them to a larger living space when needed. These creatures tend to be skilled escapists so make sure their cage has a secured lid.

Best Pet For: Families that are interested in the science of snakes and are not looking for a warm, cuddly companion. If you have small children, avoid adopting snakes that grow to be very large or are of the constrictor variety.

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Goats

Personality: These endearing pack animals love to be around both their human and animal families. They form strong bonds with people and stick close to them; they'll walk right next to you on a hike. Goats are very social and need to be in the company of other animals, so make sure you bring home more than one.

Care: You'll need to find a farm vet for your goats. They don't get sick often, but when they do they mask their illnesses—they do this to protect themselves, because in the wild predators go after weak or sickly animals first—so a vet is needed to find any irregularities. Goats need their hooves trimmed frequently, which their family can do after learning the proper trimming technique.

Habitat: Goats need a safe outdoor living space that is close enough to your home for them to feel comfortable. A little more than an acre is plenty of land to keep two goats contained and safe. They need space to roam around, but they don't like to be too far from their owners.

Best Pet For: Outdoorsy families who own a bit of land and are looking for a pet that wants to spend time bonding with them. Goats also do a lot of work for their families, essentially mowing the lawn and eating unwanted plants like poison ivy.

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Donkeys

Personality: Donkeys are very personable creatures that become companions to their human families. Although they have minds of their own, donkeys need friends too, so having more than one is best. You can pair a donkey and a goat, but they do even better with buddies of their own species.

Care: Donkeys may live to be 30 or more years old, so make sure you will have the space and resources to care for them 20 years from now. Fostering a donkey is a good way to test them out as pets.

Habitat: Donkeys need a few more acres than goats to be happy and healthy. Make sure your backyard has enough grass to feed them properly. These animals can be hard on fences—they tend to lean against them and create damages—so a strong fence is essential.

Best Pet For: Families with a good amount of land and time to be outside with their donkeys frequently.

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Chinchillas

Personality: These cuddly critters are incredibly sweet and quickly bond to their families. Chinchillas are also very sensitive and temperature dependent; they should never be kept in an environment over 75 degrees or they can get sick.

Care: Chinchillas need regular exercise outside of their cage space, but do not put them in plastic exercise balls for risk of overheating and death. There are specific ways to hold chinchillas and they can be injured if picked up incorrectly—these animals need gentle care.

Habitat: They need a wire cage with a lot of ventilation—good options can be found at guineapigcages.com—and the cage should never be filled with cedar bedding. Chinchillas eat hay and like to have a dust bath a few times a week. But make sure not to buy a scented dust bath because it can bother their respiratory tracts.

Best Pet For: Families who are looking for a pet that has a sweet temperament and soft fur, but are prepared to take care of a sensitive animal. Kids who are rough or raucous may want to look into an animal that doesn't get injured so easily.

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Ducks

Personality: Ducks have individualized personalities—some of them will come right up to people while others are more detached.

Care: It's necessary to have more than one duck because they enjoy company and like to hang out with their own species.

Habitat: You'll need a large water area for them. Natural water is best, but if you've built your own pond it needs to have a filtration system to keep the water clean.

Best Pet For: Families with a large water space who enjoy spending free time outside.

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Chickens

Personality: Chickens also have varying personalities, but they easily recognize and form connections with their human families.

Care: If your chickens live inside of an enclosure, like a chicken coop or small fenced-in area, they need at least an hour of time every day roaming around the yard with you. If they don't live in an enclosure, one or two predatory losses may be an occurrence you'll need to accept.

Habitat: Enclosures only work if you have enough space to have grass growing inside that the chickens can feed on. A fence that is at least 6 feet tall will keep them from escaping.

Best Pet For: Families that spend a lot of time in the yard. They need people to be outside with them and are very good with children.

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Fish

Personality: Fish are low maintenance pets, but are useful in training kids and teens to care for animals.

Care: Having fish is a great way to learn about consistent care. They need regular feedings and you must look out for diseases, just as with any pet.

Habitat: Fish need a tank with enough space for them to grow and explore their underwater home. There should also be enough items in the tank to entertain them.

Best Pet For: Working parents who don't want to come home and take an animal on a walk. They are also hypoallergenic, so fish are ideal for people who are allergic to pet dander.

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Hedgehogs

Personality: These prickly cuties are shy but very inquisitive. They are calm and lovable and need to be handled frequently; they really become part of the family.

Care: Expect to dedicate at least an hour a day to grooming, playing with and tending to your hedgehog. These creatures need to be kept warm because they are very temperature conscious. However, heat lamps should be avoided.

Habitat: Hedgehogs need a lot of room in their cage and need to be kept inside, not in the yard. They are avid climbers, so having a top to their cage is necessary. Give them things to climb on and under, and push around in their living space to keep them stimulated.

Best Pet For: Families looking for a more exotic pet that is still likely to become a treasured part of the brood. It is illegal to have hedgehogs as pets in some areas of the country, and other places require permits to keep one as a pet, so look into the laws in your town before adopting.

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Rabbits

Personality: They sleep a lot during the day, making them a fairly quiet pet. Although they are calm, they still require exercise, if caged, and should be let out for several hours a day to run, jump and explore their surroundings.

Care: Due to their complex digestive system, it's important that rabbits receive a proper diet, consisting of hay, vegetables and fruit. Foods they should never be fed are iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cabbage, corn, beans, peas, potatoes, beets, onions, rhubarb, bamboo, seeds and grains, as well as chocolate, candy and most human foods.

Habitat: Rabbits require a cage with a solid floor that's a minimum of five times their size. It should be lined with newspaper and include a feeding bowl and water bottle. Like cats, they can be trained to use a litter box, so if you go that route, make sure to place one box in their cage. If you allow them to roam free, make sure to have several boxes around the house.

Best Pet For: Quiet, introspective types who are looking for a pet that won't be too noisy or intrude on their lifestyle.

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Ferrets

Personality: Slightly zany and playful, they require enough space to be able to walk around and play with their toys.

Care: Like cats, ferrets enjoy their naps and will often sleep between 15 and 20 hours per day. But once awake, ferrets like to be active so the more you entertain them, the happier they'll be.

Habitat: Their ancestors were den animals, so any home you create for them should feel like a den too. Many ferrets prefer bi-level cages with ramps or stairs they can climb, and shelves or hammocks where they can perch.

Best Pet For: City-dwellers who are looking for a fun, new change to their lifestyle.

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Pigs

Personality: They are highly intelligent animals—in fact they are the brightest land animal after chimps.

Care: Extremely sensitive to heat, they can suffer from sunburn or heat stroke, just as humans can. They should be able to splash around in cool water or mud during the summer months.

Habitat: Pigs should be kept in a pen filled with fresh straw and a feeding trough. Keeping their environment clean, especially at night, is critical to preventing disease.

Best Pet For: People who have a large enough outdoor living space to accommodate their needs, and those who enjoy spending time with a clever, though sometimes mischievous, critter.

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Rats

Personality: Contrary to popular belief, they are extremely fun, bright and playful animals.

Care: Their front teeth grow continuously, so in order to prevent dental problems, provide them with unpainted, untreated pieces of wood, dog biscuits or safe cardboard or rawhides to gnaw on.

Habitat: Rats do best in wire cages because they enjoy climbing and there is good ventilation. Be sure to keep them out of drafts though—they are prone to catching colds.

Best Pet For: Anyone looking for a true companion animal without the commitment of a cat or dog.

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Pet Preference

Nowadays, more people are open to new types of animals when it comes to adoption. According to Betsy Banks Saul, co-founder of Petfinder.com, there are many factors that play into this decision. Keep these in mind before bringing a new pet home.

Lifespan: It's easier to make a commitment to an animal that will live about three to four years, like a hamster or a guinea pig, as opposed to a dog or cat that might live to be 17.

Space: In this economy, it is not unusual for families to have to move from a larger home to a smaller one, thus cutting down on the amount of extra space they'd have for a pet. In other cases, families may be forced to move into a building that doesn't allow cats or dogs, so they opt for a more apartment-friendly pet like a hamster, guinea pig or fish.

Time: People are arguably busier now than ever before. It's rare to find a household with one spouse home during the day or kids who don't participate in any after-school or extracurricular activities, allowing them time to walk a dog or play with a cat.

Cost: When it comes to the priciest pets, dogs and cats top the list. Pet owners can expect an annual bill between $1,300 to $1,800 for dogs, depending on their size, and about $1,000 for cats—a cost that many families are unprepared to handle financially.

Health: Between 15 to 30 percent of people are allergic to either dogs or cats, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, making a smoother or scalier pet the better choice.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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