Guinea pigs, hamsters, or rabbits: Which small pet is right for your family?

two guinea pig being held

Adding a pet to your family is one of the most exciting decisions you can make, but choosing which type of pet will work best in your home can be tricky.

For many families, the first step into pet parenthood, especially if you have children, is to adopt a critter. While these smaller animals can seem like an easier commitment than a dog or a cat, they still require proper care and enrichment.

If you’re unsure of which critter will fit best with your family’s lifestyle, here’s a breakdown of the care needs and considerations to make before you decide.

What to know before you adopt a guinea pig

Guinea pigs are social animals that can make great pets for families with children. However, it’s important to know that guinea pigs can also be shy and easily frightened, so they work best for households that are quieter or lower energy.

Despite their shyness, guinea pigs are also talkative animals, making lots of squeaks and grunts to communicate. When you adopt these rodents, you’ll likely hear lots of noise coming from your pet’s enclosure.

Guinea pigs need safe, secure enclosures that allow plenty of space for them to move around, and they also frequently build bonds with other guinea pigs and do well in pairs.

They need a specific diet to get all of the key nutrients they need. Because they don’t make their own vitamin C, they rely on their diet to supplement. Not only will they need a base pellet diet, but they’ll need constant access to grass hay and fresh vegetable.  

Guinea pigs would work best for a family that:

  • Has a quieter or lower energy household
  • Is looking for a social pet that enjoys handling
  • Is looking to adopt more than one pet
  • Has children and wants to introduce a fun pet to the family

What to know before you adopt a rabbit

two rabbits being held

Rabbits are adorable, active pets that make great companions for their family, but they require the same amount of care and attention that household pets like cats and dogs need.

They need annual vet visits, regular nail trimmings, and daily care and exercise to keep them happy and healthy.

Rabbits need enclosures that are large enough to allow movement (at least 3-4 hops in all directions), but they also need hours outside of their cage daily for exercise and play.

They often love toys and can be great playmates for families with the time and attention to dedicate.

Because rabbits are prey animals in the wild, pet rabbits can be shy and may prefer not to be picked up or handled regularly, making them not a great choice for young children or kids excited for a cuddly new pet. 

Rabbits would work best for a family that:

  • Is looking for an active pet (did you know rabbits can participate in agility competitions?)
  • Isn’t looking for a lap pet or one that loves to be held
  • Has older children and plenty of space for rabbits to run around

What to know before you adopt a hamster

Hamsters are small pets that make a great option as a first pet for families with older children. Because of their small size and independent nature, they can be lower maintenance than other small pets, which works great for many families with busy schedules.

Hamsters, however, are nocturnal animals, meaning they are active at night. As you and your children are off to sleep, your hamster will be just getting started for the day. Because of this, you’re likely to hear sounds throughout the night, like the squeak of their exercise wheel.

Hamster would work best for a family that:

  • Has older children interested in caring for a pet
  • Has a busier schedule and want a lower maintenance pet
  • Has the space to provide a large enclosure

What to know before you adopt a mouse or rat

Pet mouse being held

Domestic mice and rats are sweet, social animals that make fantastic pets and that often do even better in same-sex pairs, especially females.

Two males can live together if they are introduced young, but they’ll likely be aggressive towards each other if they’re introduced later in life.

Rats are especially intelligent and can form emotional bonds with their caretakers. They love to climb and will enjoy just about any toy you offer them, from cardboard tubes to crumpled paper.

Mice also enjoy playtime and are social pets, but they will likely be less affectionate to their caretakers than rats will.

Both critters require plenty of space in their housing to run around, as well as adequate ventilation. Both pets also prefer quieter locations where they can still feel like a part of your daily activities.

Mice or rats would work best for a family that:

  • Prefers to adopt a pair of pets instead of just one
  • Is looking for affectionate pets that enjoy active playtime
  • Is looking for a calmer pet that’s still social

What to consider before you adopt a new pet for your family

Bringing a new pet into your home is a big decision, even if you’re looking for a smaller critter. Every pet comes with their own care needs and responsibilities, and it’s important to choose a pet that fits into your family’s lifestyle.

Before you adopt a new pet, consider:

  • The space requirements for the pet
  • The daily care needs they require
  • The typical expenses you can expect for that pet
  • How much time and attention you have to dedicate to the pet
  • What your current lifestyle is like and how that may change
  • How a new pet may interact with your current pets or children 
  Guinea Pig  Hamster  Rabbit  Mouse  Rat 
Ease of Care Higher maintenance with specific diet and exercise needs Lower maintenance and more independent in nature Higher maintenance with daily exercise and grooming needs Lower maintenance, quieter pets that still love playtime Lower maintenance, but still require playtime and exercise
Size 1-2 pounds, 8-10 inches long 2-3 inches long Variety of sizes but typically about 6 pounds 5-7 inches long 0.5-1 pound, 8-10 inches long
Handling Typically like being held Weary of being held Can be weary of being held Does well being held after some warming up Typically like being held
Diet Specific diet that included fresh veggies and hay Combination of rodent chow (rat blocks) and hamster pellet/seed mix Need a diet with hay, green foods, pellets, treats (non-leafy vegetables and fruits), supplements and vitamins (if required) Commercial rodent food combined with fresh vegetables Pelleted or block-type diets with a small amount of veggies or fruit
Lifespan 5-7 years 2-3 years 7-10 years 1-3 years 2-3 years


Interested in adding a new critter to your family?

Animal Humane Society has a variety of small pets ready to be adopted into your family. You can view our list of animals available for adoption, or stop in to one of our three shelter locations.

If you have additional questions on what pet would be right for you, you can review our resource library or contact our pet helpline for additional help.

For caring, compassionate advice and resources to address all your animal concerns.

Contact the Pet Helpline