Claws for thought

Carolyne Allmark goes in search of easy starter
pets for Dubai’s animal-loving families

Claws for thought

If any of the mums and dads on the Time Out team had ten dirhams for every time one of our kids asked if we could get a hamster, or a cat, or a parrot, or on really desperate days, “just a little baby rat, maybe?” we’d be rather wealthy. In Dubai, we tend to travel a lot and, let’s face it, no-one is getting up at 5am to go for “walkies” during the summer.

Families living away from their home countries, especially those who move around a lot, probably feel even more pressure than most to add to their brood with something cute and furry, as we constantly worry we are raising kids incapable of commitment and with no sense of home.

A pet, we think, extends the family, perhaps makes up a bit for the lack of cousins and grandparents and, in many ways, it’s true. We all know how good pets are for family life – they teach children valuable nurturing skills, responsibility for something other than themselves and, when their beloved Monty goes to “sleep”, they learn all about the circle of life. Studies have also shown that pets boost compassion, self-esteem, and reduce stress in kids, which are pretty hard positives to ignore.

But there’s no denying how tough the heat here can be on particular animals. And pets need company, attention and time, as well as feeding, watering and walking, which doesn’t always go well with our fondness for hotel staycations and quick trips to Sri Lanka at half-term, not to mention the mass summer exodus that’s just about to start.

Even if you have help at home, the pet is still your responsibility and once you run out of friends to ask to pet-sit, animal boarding options can get really expensive.

So, what to do? One Time Out staffer begged her own parents for a pet for years. They staunchly refused, then conceded with a pair of rather sweet garter snakes who nipped each other like crazy in their tank every day. This little anecdote got us thinking... what if pet ownership doesn't need to be that hard?

There are plenty of critters looking for a home in Dubai that take far less time and attention. The kids get their way and we look on, relieved that they’re learning a thing or two about animal life. Do you fancy one of these creatures in your home?

The starter one

Betta fish: Most of us will probably say our first pet was a goldfish but, actually, the Betta fish is one of the easiest fish to care for. They don’t need a fancy tank, water heater or filter and can be kept in small bowls with water you’ll only need to change a quarter of each week. You can’t house male Betta (meaning ‘fighter’) fish in the same tank as other fish, as they will – as their name suggests – probably kill each other, but female Betta fish can be kept in a larger aquarium with other similar-sized fish of different species. They will survive a couple of days without feeding if you go away for the weekend and it’s not usually difficult to pop a small fish tank along to a friend or neighbour’s house if you’re away over the summer, as they only require a pinch of their fish food once a day. Get some advice from your local pet store or aquarium to help you decide which type of fish are best for your family.

The cute one

Hamsters: Hamsters are affectionate little creatures who like to sleep during the day and pound their exercise wheel at night. They’re not keen on sharing their home with other hamsters, but will gladly sit on your hand or knee if handled gently and left to rest for long enough. They don’t particularly smell, their cage should be easy to clean and other than a sippy water bottle and a couple of ceramic bowls to go with the exercise wheel, there’s little else they really need. Hamsters can often get stuck inside those cool-looking interlocking plastic tubes you can buy, and they’re difficult to keep clean, so they’re best avoided. Just get plenty of paper-based bedding, so they can burrow and hide, a good hamster pellet, ample grass hay, a bit of seed mix, some fresh veggies and a stick of fruit wood to gnaw on. This will keep your hamster well-fed and healthy.

The surprisingly loveable one

Crested geckos: Geckos are gorgeously addictive little lizards that rarely grow bigger than the palm of your hand and don’t need the additional heat equipment that some of the more involved reptiles require. They can live for up to 15 years and enjoy the lovely warm temperatures here. They like foliage for resting in during the day and are active at night – much like the geckos in your garden. They live off a commercial meal replacement powder, readily available in pet shops, and you should add one or two additional bugs such as gut-loaded dried crickets or worms once or twice a week to help them grow. Their enclosure should be around one-foot by two-feet high for adults and kept simple, with some climbing branches and a mix of real and fake plants, leaving plenty of open space for exploring. The bedding should be kept moist and you need to mist the enclosure every day to maintain humidity and provide droplets of water for them to drink and keep hydrated. You can easily buy a cheap reptile humidity gauge to be sure it is at the correct level.

The furry one

Rabbits: Rabbits are super social animals who can live for up to ten years and make great indoor pets if you’re worried about keeping an animal outside in the heat. You could opt for a special bunny pen, large cage, or just an area in the house with the food, litter boxes, and cardboard castles, if you’re going to give your rabbit free reign – but be careful they don’t nibble any cables, wires or rugs. Rabbits can be cheeky if they get bored, so have lots of paper such as old leaflets or toilet roll holders lying around for them to play with and shred. Your bunny will need its own space to relax in away from the family though, so make sure you provide this, too. You will need to litter-train your rabbit and ensure he has the correct nutrition in his diet, including lots of grass and hay.

The cheeky one

Ferrets: Amusing, mischievous and intelligent, ferrets thrive on human contact and can live for between eight and 11 years. If left unsupervised and roaming around your house, though, they can be incredibly destructive, scratching closed doors, burrowing into sofa cushions and they are never completely “potty-trained”. They sleep for up to 20 hours a day but need plenty of cage-free time when they are awake to keep them happy and healthy. They like to hide keys, socks and other household items and can tuck themselves into the tiniest hideouts, so you must make sure there are no holes in the walls or behind the fridge for them to wriggle into and either get stuck in or escape. Similar to cats and dogs, they require regular flea treatment, grooming, vaccinations, toys, plus a comfortable cage, accessories, food and treats. They’re best for children over eight to ensure they’re being handled correctly and you must ensure the ferret is de-scented and sterilised, as females will die if not bred properly and males will otherwise become very aggressive and smell terribly.

The pre-historic one

Tortoise: These fascinating creatures once walked the planet with the dinosaurs 200 million years ago and are a popular choice for families here with a garden and young children. Tortoises can live past 100 years so you must be prepared to take on this pet for the long haul and then have a plan in place for when you leave, which is why it is best to adopt rather than try to buy one. Tortoises can eat most vegetables and leafy greens, but you’ll need to find out exactly what your type of tortoise needs. Most tortoises prefer the hot climate here, but will need plenty of shade and access to water in a shallow tray or saucer to keep it hydrated. Little ones need to handle their tortoise with care, as they can find being held quite stressful and a cracked shell can lead to serious infection. Tortoises love to explore, so a secure garden with lots of (safe) plants, varying terrain and tree roots to burrow amongst for privacy – and no fence gaps to escape through – is important. Tortoises kept outside are at risk from predators like rats, dogs and even large birds so you might want to consider an enclosure for night-time. Species from warmer, tropical climates do not always hibernate, but you may find your tortoise disappears for a few weeks before popping out again and this is perfectly normal.

The noisy one

Crickets: That chirping sound the male cricket makes as he rubs the grooved ridges on the underside of one of his front wings is familiar to most gardens in hot climates. If you can catch your own, a cricket would make a great experimental pet you can then release back into the wild after a couple of weeks of observation and entertainment.

Crickets like to be warm and will be active and sing more in the right temperature – between 80 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit – which is perfect for houses here as long as the A/C isn’t blasting over him all day long. An aquarium with a fine wire mesh lid or a ventilated jar with some sand and a few rocks and twigs, or crumpled paper so he has some hiding spaces to chill-out in, will work perfectly. Keep a damp sponge or moistened cotton wool in there as a drinking water source, rather than standing water, as they can easily drown and they will eat pretty much anything vegetarian (or each other if they are hungry enough!), so small bits of apple, lettuce and peelings work fine. Clean out the area once a week and replace the twigs and sand to keep his home healthy, then release him back into the garden, guilt-free, once the novelty has worn off.

The zero-maintenance one

House spiders: It shouldn’t be too difficult to capture one of these eight-legged friends hiding in one of the dark spaces around your home. Make sure you supervise any search mission to ensure what the kids find is safe and this is another great short-term pet option they can enjoy watching and feeding for a couple of weeks before setting them free again. Adult common house spiders may live for several years and are around six to ten millimetres long (excluding their legs), with a yellow-brown body and faint markings. A clear container with a couple of holes in it, so the spider can breathe, is fine to keep it in, and a wet paper towel or damp cotton wool inside will maintain humidity. They don’t need water to drink, as they get all their fluid from their food. Cover the bottom with sand or soil and some rocks, so your spider can hide underneath and make its lair. Feed him one or two insects a day, such as dead flies, small caterpillars or small meal worms, but most spiders can live for up to a month without food if their environment is humid enough.

The camouflaged one

Stick insects: Looking after a family of stick insects can be fascinating and so much fun. You will need a tall enclosure with a roof made of netting or mesh to ensure that the stick insects can hang from it safely when molting. The cage of your stick insect should be at least three times the body length of the insect in height and twice the body length in width, and if you keep more than one then you have to add some space. There is no need for much decoration, as the leaves you will feed to the insects are also their habitat, but you should cover the floor with a moisture-absorbing potting earth, small pebbles or tissue paper, and spray the enclosure regularly to ensure proper humidity. Different species of stick insects require different care, types of leaves or plants and levels of humidity, so make sure you do your homework or the results can be fatal. They need fresh leaves (still on the branches) and you have to clean the enclosure of droppings regularly, but tissue paper as a base should make that task easier.

The biology lesson one

Butterflies: Watch a caterpillar grow and then let a butterfly go with one of these cool Butterfly Garden kits. The kits contain live caterpillars, a reusable, collapsible hatching habitat, instructions and activity booklet, as well as a feeding pipette and food. The transformation time from caterpillar to butterfly can vary, but generally this entire process takes about four weeks from start to finish; although the warmer it is, the shorter the cycle.
Dhs188 (Original Butterfly Garden with two live cups of caterpillars), from

Meet the expert...

Dr Sara Elliot, owner of the British Veterinary Hospital, Jumeirah, is passionate about animals. Here, she offers her top ten tips for first-time pet owners.

1 There is no easy pet, really. They all involve time and responsibility. While a hamster may not live as long, they need to be cleaned out and do encounter health issues. Also, many don’t consider the fact that some birds, such as the popular African Grey, can live for well over 50 years.

2 We see a number of tortoises here and plenty of ferrets and sugar gliders, which are very cute, but the most popular alternative pets are rabbits and hamsters.

3 The biggest mistakes families make when choosing a pet is choosing one based upon looks. Pets should always be chosen as the suitable animal through researching the species, temperament and the suitability of the lifestyle and the environment here.

4 For under-fives you are better off not choosing a baby, but an older pet that has an established personality – they will normally be more tolerant and you will be able to predict their behaviour better. We have treated some unusual cases in the clinic, such as the pet which lost its ear with a hairband, when the child thought he was styling its hair, but instead cut off the poor animal’s blood flow. For children over six, you should choose pets based upon family dynamics, so if the family goes out camping every weekend, the choice may be different than with a family that stays in all the time and watches television.

5 Rabbits should be avoided with very young children as they do not like to be held. They get stressed when picked up and they can bite and scratch. They are only happy when all four feet are on the ground. Any pet who has shown aggressive tendencies to anyone in the
past is not suitable in a family with young children.

6 Think about your plans for the summer and what arrangements you will make for the pet if you’re not here. Also, think about whether the pet’s life can be adapted for the heat and how will you deal with the pet during the hot summer months, to make sure they’re always happy.

7 Pet insurance is vital. The most expensive treatment surgeries are upwards of Dhs25,000 and fractures can cost Dhs10-12,000, depending upon the severity. We recently operated on a cat that ate a “trash pack” toy that is shaped like a monster coming out of a dustbin, which cost over Dhs8,000. There isn’t pet insurance in this country, so you should bear this in mind when looking after your animals. However, at British Veterinary Hospital we offer a private equivalent to pet insurance called myVET, which helps spread the cost of maintaining your pet over the year to ensure they are kept healthy and less likely to need serious repair.

8 Parrots and birds are more difficult to look after and need a lot more space than people think. They also require a large amount of interaction and often rely upon specialist diets.

9 You should always initially consider adoption organisations, such as K9 Friends, and have a trial with an adopted pet before committing, to ensure it will fit into family life. Even before this, take time to watch how the pet behaves in its environment and with the children.

10 Never assume your child is 100 percent safe. They should always be supervised with pets. Treat the pet as you would like to be treated and always ensure your animals have access to water and cool areas.

Getting started:
Pet adoption

There are so many abandoned animals in the UAE in need of new homes and several groups and associations dedicated to helping them find new owners. Always consider adoption before buying an animal in a pet shop or online. Check out:

K9 Friends
Call 04 887 8739 or visit

The Bin Kitty Collective

38 Smiles

Dubai Animal Rescue Centre
Call 050 858 7844 or email

Ras Al Khaimah Animal Welfare Centre
Call 050 4873 922 or visit

Pet stores

If you’ve tried to adopt and you’re still looking, these local suppliers will be able to help.

Petland Megastore
Near Noor Islamic Metro Station, Al Quoz 3, Dubai. Call (04) 380 4343 or visit

Pets Habitat
Ascana 2 Building, Al Barsha, visit (04 341 8085).

Creatures Oasis, Satwa
Call (04)344 2154 or visit
For pet classified adverts.

Pet gear

Get yourself kitted out with everything you need from tanks to bedding, collars to feeding bowls and pet food.

800 Pets

Pets’ Delight

Dubai Pet Food
Free online pet food and supplies delivery.

The Pet Shop
Dubai Investment Park, Dubai.
Call 04 887 8218 or visit

Private pet insurance

Sign up for this as soon as you bring your pet home, or it could end up costing you more than all of your kids put together!

The British Veterinary Hospital

▪ Ask your local vet for their recommendations.

Track it down

Find My Pet is a free microchip registry dedicated to reuniting lost and found pets across the Middle East. Hop online for details and to register yours at

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