By David F. Kramer
Apartment living certainly has its advantages, such as not having to mow the lawn, but the downside for pet lovers is that certain pets are too large, too active, too noisy, or just plain unsuitable for a small living environment. We all want our pets to be healthy and content, and an apartment may not always provide for that. Read on to learn which pets tend to do best (and are most welcome) in apartments.
Images taken from Thinkstock Photos
The American Pet Products Association (APPA) estimates that 94.2 million pet cats reside in the United States, in comparison to 89.7 million dogs. Cats can be perfect apartment pets. They don’t need to be walked outside and they can be quite content living an indoor-only lifestyle, “as long as their people are dedicated to providing them with ample opportunities to play and exercise,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, veterinary advisor with petMD.
Cats also are also good at making use of vertical space, be that furniture, shelving, or window sills. So, however small your apartment might be, it can be exponentially larger for our feline friends when you make a conscious effort to provide as much vertical space as possible. And much like people, some cats are content being left on their own to rule the roost, while others are social creatures who appreciate the company of other pets.
If you’re a dog person, there’s no reason to despair. Many breeds will be perfectly happy and healthy in an apartment. Small dogs such as the Pug, Shih Tzu, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chihuahua, Bichon Frise, and Boston and Yorkshire Terriers can flourish in your one or two bedroom walkup. Even large breeds like Great Danes and Greyhounds, which are sometimes considered the couch potatoes of the dog world, may live well in an apartment setting—though they certainly will need to get outside regularly throughout the day to stretch their legs.
Whatever the size of the breed, having a yard (such as a courtyard) or other nearby place to exercise is the best option. “If you have a yard,” says Dr. Adam Denish, a veterinarian at Rhawnhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania, “it’s definitely more acceptable for activity and socializing for your pet. It can help the dog to forge long term relationships with other animals and can lower their stress levels.” Regularly visiting a nearby dog park can provide similar benefits.
When it comes to reptiles, people tend to divide them into two categories: snakes and everything else. Snakes have a long lifespan, can be handled, and can be left alone for periods of time, says Denish. “However, they do need to be fed fairly often and need sufficient heat and light to survive.”
Coates adds that small, apartment-friendly species of snakes include the Milk Snake, Corn Snake, Garter Snake, and Kingsnake.
Some species of turtles and tortoises and lizards such as geckos, bearded dragons, and chameleons are small, quiet, and can be very social—and less intimidating than snakes—in your household. But Coates warns that “potential reptile owners should always be aware of the expected adult size and particular needs of the species they are interested in to avoid unwanted surprises in the future.”
Cats may be more common than dogs, but when it comes to pure numbers, fish rule them both. According to the APPA, more than 158 million fresh and saltwater fish are kept as pets in the United States. Just watching fish swim around in an aquarium has been shown to lower blood pressure and stress in adults. For the kids, doing the same has been shown to improve hyperactivity disorders. Perhaps the most startling of all, Alzheimer’s patients who watched aquariums had improved appetites, required less medication, and had reduced violent outbursts.
While an aquarium might seem like the perfect setup for an apartment, there are some important considerations. Beginners often opt for a small, all-in-one aquarium. These generally hold between one and five gallons of water and come complete with a ready-made plug in filter, heater, and other needed items. The downside of these setups is that such a tiny environment is easily disrupted. Small changes can throw things off balance. So, you will need to check pH, ammonia and nitrite/nitrate levels, water hardness, and alkalinity regularly. The water will also need to be replaced often. Even with a filter in place, debris and waste material build up quickly. Larger aquariums are ideal, but of course these will also need diligent maintenance.
Domesticated birds may seem to be an obvious choice for apartment-living, but they can be challenging too. All birds are noisy to some degree, whether in the form of pleasant chirps or ear-splitting squawks. Being friendly with your neighbors can help, but landlords will tend to side with those complaining about the racket, even if birds are permitted in your lease.
Birds are social animals. Coates cautions that birds who are left alone simply will not thrive. “The biggest problem that lies behind most behavioral problems in birds is the stress and anxiety that is caused by loneliness and a lack of mental stimulation.”
Bigger birds like parrots and macaws are extremely intelligent and need near constant interaction with an experienced bird family. They are also costly, noisy, and need advanced care, but they can be your family’s friend for 50+ years. The upkeep of small birds, on the other hand, can be simpler and fairly inexpensive, but the responsibility of bird ownership should never be taken lightly, says Coates.
Hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, and rats are well-suited to apartment living. Their enclosures can be relatively small and inexpensive, though they do need to be kept clean. Most will also need lots of toys and some supervised playtime outside of their cages.
Many small rodents don’t mind being handled and enjoy a good cuddle. Rats in particular have a high level of intelligence and patient owners can even teach them some tricks by offering food as a reward during training. The downside? Coates says that “rodents do better in groups (or at least in pairs) which increases the size of cage that you’ll need and the frequency that you’ll have to be cleaning it.”
While not common, there are some allergy issues with guinea pigs and other rodents. Also, guinea pigs make a lot of communicative sounds in the form of clicks, squeaks, and whines. So, if you’re worried that your neighbors might object to the noise, you might want to opt for a quieter species.
If your pet needs turn to the more exotic, you might want to consider one of the new wave of “pocket pets” that have emerged in recent years. While pretty much any pet that can be held in the hand falls into the "pocket" category, several more distinctive choices have been gaining in popularity. Sugar Gliders, pygmy hedgehogs, and the like make for interesting pets, but as Denish says, “Remember that these pets are nocturnal and may not be interested in keeping to your schedule.”
These species can also have some special requirements. Sugar gliders are best to own in same sex pairs, and the younger they are when you get them, the more likely they will be to bond to their owners. Sugar gliders also tend to appreciate a larger enclosure with a hanging pouch in which they can feel safe and protected. Pygmy hedgehogs are illegal to own in Maine, California, Georgia, Hawaii and Pennsylvania, and certain conditions for their ownership must be met to keep them in Arizona.
For those who like their pets a bit more rambunctious, a rabbit (ideally more than one) might be the way to go. The needed enclosures for these pets vary greatly; there are some owners who simply “rabbit proof” a room and allow their pets to have free reign over it. Rabbit cages are widely available but are often pretty small. Another option is a multi-level “bunny condo,” which offers more room than traditional cages. And like any other pet, your rabbits will appreciate some supervised playtime outside of its enclosure, particularly if it is small.
If you opt for a ferret, it’s best to do your research. Ferrets are illegal in certain municipalities. And even if they are legal where you live, ferrets aren’t right for everyone. While they tend to be quiet, friendly, and happy in relatively small environments, their inquisitive nature can get them into trouble if they are left unsupervised outside of their cage. Coates recommends that you ferret-proof at least one room in your apartment so you can safely play with your ferrets and give them the exercise and mental stimulation they need.
For those bold pet owners who want something truly exotic, you only need turn to the insect world, especially if you’re more into a pet you can watch rather than handle. Critters like Tarantulas, Emperor Scorpions, African Centipedes, or Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches all require small enclosures and relatively simple care.
Tarantulas come in some unique color patterns and sizes. While some folks do interact with their spiders, it’s best to not handle tarantulas—more for the potential danger to them than for yourself.
As for the downside, most of these creatures will need live food, and that means keeping a supply of crickets, mealworms, or other insect delicacies on hand. Perhaps a more serious downside is the risk of a sting or bite with some of these species, though the effect is less harmful than from their relatives in the wild. Of course, there is a risk of being bitten no matter what type of animal you choose to live with.