Some of the best pets for children -- especially children with busy parents -- are all rodents: mice, rats, hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits.
They're inexpensive to acquire, equip and maintain, and they're quiet and easy to care for. Rats are friendly; hamsters and mice are active and fun to watch; and guinea pigs are easy to handle and have an interesting "vocabulary" of squeals. Some rabbits can even be trained to use a litter box.
Smaller rodents can be housed in a glass aquarium with wood shavings -- chips, not sawdust -- for bedding and a piece of wire-mesh screen for a lid. These are active, inquisitive animals; they will be happiest with the biggest enclosure possible. They also need a sturdy food dish and a water bottle, along with a simple den and such toys as wheels, ladders or tree branches.
Guinea pigs and rabbits are generally housed in wire-mesh cages with slide-out trays to make clean-up easier. Wood enclosures are not recommended for any rodent, since they can chew through them and escape.
All rodents need fresh food and water daily, and their living quarters need to be cleaned weekly. Commercial foods are inexpensive and easy to find and can take care of basic nutritional needs. Rodents appreciate the frequent addition of fresh vegetables (but any such offering must be washed thoroughly to remove any pesticide residue).
Basic books on the care of any of these pets are available at any library or bookstore.
Anyone considering a rabbit should pick up one of the best books on small-animal care: "House Rabbit Handbook: How To Live With an Urban Rabbit" ($5.95; Drollery Press, 1615 Encinal Ave., Alameda, Calif., 94501). Marinell Harriman's book is packed with practical information on caring for a rabbit -- including litter-box training.
No matter what kind of pet is chosen, it's important to remember that although a child can help with the care of the animal, the final responsibility belongs with the parents. It's a mistake to allow the experience of pet ownership to turn into a nasty and ongoing tug of war between parent and child.
Parents should show their children how to care for the pet, and let them learn through example that the animals in our care are entitled to be treated well. They are living things, not toys, and they are not to be discarded when the novelty has worn off.
Trimming cat claws. Cats keep their claws in shape by constantly applying them to trees outside and scratching posts (and sometimes couches) inside, as any cat-lover knows. But indoor cats, as well as older or more sedentary ones, often aren't able to keep their claws worn down. They need help to do so, with periodic claw-trims.
Young cats can usually be trained to endure claw-trimming quietly. But with an older cat, the procedure is usually a two-person affair -- one holding, one trimming. Before you start on your cat, get a pet nail-trim mer and a product to stop bleeding, such as Kwik-Stop (both are available at any reputable pet-supply store).
If your pet's not cooperative, wrap him in a towel and have another person hold him gently but firmly. Take your cat's paw and expose the claw by applying pressure to its base. Look at the claw carefully and notice the pink area, known as the quick. Cutting into that area means blood and pain -- probably for both of you -- so be careful to maneuver the trimmer to avoid it. If you do nick the quick, a dab of Kwik-Stop will halt the bleeding.
Checking your pet's paws monthly and trimming as needed will keep your cat's claws in good shape.
Wild horses. Looking to adopt a horse? Animals that can't fit in a hand or sleep on the bed don't really fit into this column, but a special book has me tinkering with the rules, at least on this one occasion.
"The Wild Horse: An Adopter's Manual" (Howell Book House; $27.95) is a thoughtful, thorough treatment of topic many animal lovers with a little land have wondered about: How hard is it to tame a wild horse? Authors Barbara Eustis-Cross and Nancy Bowker cover it all, from who should and, more importantly, who should not consider adoption, to choosing, taming and training a feral horse. They close with stories of horses that have successfully made the transition, some trained to compete in various equine sports.
Anyone who has ever wondered if a wild horse is for them should read this important book before heading to the adoption center.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.