5 Low-Cost, Low-Maintenance Alternatives to the Family Dog


african clawed frog

There’s something about owning a pet that appeals to everyone. Whether you have always dreamed of owning “man’s best friend” or perhaps aspire to be the neighborhood cat lady, chances are good that you may be in the market for a companion animal in the future. But what if you just don’t have the dough, time, energy or space for the more traditional pets? Here are five species that may not bring you the newspaper every morning, but won’t leave you for the family down the street, either:


African Clawed Frog – For just about $18 at your local pet store, you can own this 4-5 inch long aquatic frog, along with a small habitat, large rocks, a few plastic plants, and a bottle of pellets to feed it for a year. We own one of these, and the upkeep is minimal. Simply change out the water when it gets murky, and remember to throw a few frog pellets in every other day. Easy peasy. They live for up to 15 years, and love to hide behind rocks. These make a very good beginner pet or are perfect for the person who would forget to tend to a pet daily.


Leopard Geckos – This pet is a bit more costly in initial cost and setup. Unlike most reptiles, however, this one is nocturnal and doesn’t require any special UV lighting. Unique in that it has no sticky toe pads (guess who won’t be climbing out of the tank anytime soon) but has eyelids, this gecko must be fed fortified bugs. Not for squeamish people or those who like to travel out of the country on long trips. Plan on having this pet around for 20 years or so.


Hedgehogs – Also referred to as “African” or “Pygmy” hedgehogs, these were part of an exotic animal fad a few years back. There are still hedgehog breeders with long waiting lists for the “perfect” hedgie asking for insane amounts of money for their babies. However, I have found that doing a simple search of local shelters and the few Hedgehog rescue societies will most likely get you a hedgie for less than $50. We owned a few as a child, and they are adorable! Easy to keep in a 2-3 foot tank, a single hedgehog needs very little interaction (and may prefer it that way.) It’s true that they have quills, and in a situation of feeling threatened they will roll up in a ball and “hide.” Care is similar to that of a hamster, but their diet is specialized. It is also worth mentioning that certain states outlaw the keeping of hedgehogs as pets, so check for your state.


Hermit Crabs – While not the most interactive of pets, the hermit crab does have some personality! Setup is inexpensive and similar to that of the Clawed Frog – minus the water, of course! The crab will need to be fed daily and bathed weekly. Once the crab has reached a certain size, you will need to offer it a variety of new shells for it to dwell in. Please consider purchasing a crab from a local pet expert, and avoid those being sold in mall kiosks across the country. (Somehow I’m not so sure about those guys being avid pet lovers.) If held regularly, you can expect your crab to respond to your touch and even come out to see you face to face!


Madagascar Hissing Cockroach – I know. Just the thought of the things has my skin crawling. Cockroaches do make very good pets, however. They enjoy being held, but do not require it (that’s essential for us squeamish folk.) Setup requires a large tank with the most secure mesh lid ever invented and a bedding of shavings, along with some fun places for them to hide (egg cartons work well.) They feed on fresh fruit, veggies, and dry dog food. If you can get used to their gross appearance, just remember that they do hiss.


I’m sure that there are several other great small pets that I have failed to mention. My list is based on cost, space, and the stink factor (which is why I left out hamsters and gerbils.) Having a unique pet may also help kick-start the conversation at your next house party (or send them home reeling and gagging.) Find the one that works for you, and maybe with some experience, you can graduate to getting a Fido or Ms. Whiskers in a year or two. Just don’t let them near the hedgehog!


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Guest's picture
RE Bartlett

Your comments on hedgehogs are incorrect and insensitive. They require a good bit of work if you are actually going to care for them properly, rather than just treating them like part of the furniture. They need a constant temperature, good clean conditions, a custom wheel and regular exercise (this is an animal that can travel miles a night, a two-foot cage is not large enough), a specialized & varied diet, careful regular bathing and nail trimming, and DAILY interaction with human beings to keep them well socialized. Otherwise they will turn into frightened, unhappy, and unhealthy animals - the kind that are given to rescue societies all the time. When well kept and socialized, they interact well, show a lot of interest in their environment, love to wander and try different things to eat. They also require a vet with a specialty in exotic animals (cat & dog vets won't treat them). They are prone to mites and cancers.

Hedgehogs from a responsible breeder are not that expensive (certainly less than a cat or dog). The reason they aren't "cheap" is because they must be handled daily from soon after birth until they are weaned, otherwise they are not capable of becoming pets. Breeders also must be USDA licensed, and keep clear bloodline records because hedgehogs are prone to a genetic disease - WHS, a neuromuscular degenerative condition, which breeders in the US are attempting to eradicate. (For the same reason, there is a Hedgehog Registry, to track WHS and other causes of hedgehog mortality). Hedgehogs from a breeder usually range from $100-$200 -- getting a healthy, well socialized animal is more than worth it.

Yes, you might be able to find a "cheap" hedgehog, but buyer beware - you may get an animal from a shelter that has been mistreated or never properly handled, and so will never make a good pet. And a hedgehog rescue society often won't give hedgehogs to first-time owners, as rescue animals usually need an experienced person to care for and resocialize them.

By the way, the reason certain states don't allow you to keep hedgehogs (and why pet stores don't sell them) is because they can carry salmonella.

Guest's picture

Betta splendens, also known as Siamese Fighting Fish, make great inexpensive, low maintenance pets. They don't require any special aquariums. They live just fine in a one gallon glass bowl, or something similar. There is special betta pellet food, but these fish love live food such as mosquito larvae and brine shrimp as a treat. The fish are able to breathe air when needed so there is no need for a pump and air stone. Change the water every couple of weeks and that's about it. You can even breed these fish very easily to get amazing tail/fin and color combinations, though that would take more time, effort, and money.

Guest's picture

We have a snake and on a day to day basis she is cheaper than our cat, although I believe my husband had to spend a bit in the first place to buy the cage, accessories and the snake as well.

However, I would rather pay the extra for the cat who I can cuddle and stroke.

Linsey Knerl's picture

I want to first of all thank RE Bartlett for clarifying a few points on the proper care of hedgehogs. Like all animals, hedgehogs come with a certain amount of responsibility to ensure a long and healthy life. This piece was meant to be a light-hearted look at some of the less common pets that some of our readers might not be familiar with. It was assumed in writing it that:

A) Wisebread readers had the common sense to know that a pet would require consistent and adequate care

B) The information I gave on each species was not the only information needed to make a decision on pet ownership and the continued care of that pet (hence the embedded links to about.com for additional care instructions and related links)

I also maintain my position on the use of foster care and rescue programs to acquire companion animals at a lower cost. While I understand the position of many breeders is to ensure a "guaranteed" animal at a higher premium, I am a believer in the success of foster care adoption programs for all animals. Having participated in animal rescue with my mother during my childhood, I have gained an appreciation for those animals that have been neglected or abandoned, and I feel that taking in these animals is a loving, compassionate choice for many.

When looking at the long-term cost of a companion animal, it is very important to consider all factors. For example, when comparing a dog to the animals on my list, it is easy to see that when you factor in the initial purchase price, vaccinations, yearly vet checks, spay/neutering, food, regular walking and bathing, socialization classes, and the 7-15 year lifespan, you are looking at an investment of thousands of dollars and the responsibility akin to raising a child. Many Wisebread readers can benefit from the alternative pets mentioned in my piece, and I am already thrilled at the additional suggestions from readers on even more companion animal choices.

Thank you for the continued feedback, and I hope that whatever your pet choice, you find years of happiness with your companion animal!

Guest's picture

I used to have one of those frogs, they get pretty big. Mine lived forever, they are really active during the day also, mine was anyway.

Great post though, I have 4 dogs, 1 cat and 2 peacocks. I have a water problem that is just toooooo much maintenance for an aquarium, so my 50 gal. tank is in the closet.

Guest's picture
Maly Oudommahavanh

I just wanted to give kudos to Linsey's advocacy of animal shelters. They need all the support we can give for their good work!

Guest's picture

I'm a little surprised at this article. I'm a new subscriber, but had found Wisebread's advice sound - until now.

With all the cats and dogs in shelters, I am amazed that Wisebread has chosen to advocate wild animals as an ALTERNATIVE to domesticated animals. While I'm trying to fall on the side of "animal advocate" and not "animal nut," I'm utterly shocked that a common sense site such as this would advocate the breeding of wild animals in captivity OR the capturing of said animals from the wild.

The market for wild animals exists only as long as we feed into it. I've only had pets* from friends or shelters, and never from breeding mills. As cool as I think wild animals are, I can't be cruel enough to take one from its natural habitat and move it from the great outdoors to a cage the size of my computer desk.

Logic aside, my heart would feel guilty committing such an act. Really, I expected better.

*I've heard cats and dogs referred to as "companion animals." While my cat is my pet, I'm not convinced that he doesn't think that I am HIS pet.

Guest's picture

dude, what is with people? re bartlett, you have just painted hedgehog owners as complete nutcases. rhere wasn't anything in that article that indicated that the writer wanted you to treat a hedgehog like a piece of furniture. why are so many reader so overly-sensitive? goodness gracious, take a chill pill!

Guest's picture

Very useful, excellent information..
You might also find it useful to visit my website: http://www.petsmanners.info

Linsey Knerl's picture

While I have been involved in the rescuing and releasing of wild animals during my childhood (my mother was a licensed Animal Rehab worker), I have never ever kept a wild animal as a pet.  Nor do I, or Wisebread for that matter, advocate keeping wild animals as pets.

All of the animals mentioned in my article (with the exception of the hedgehog) can be purchased at any of your Big Box pet supply megafranchises. I personally don't understand how (even though the originating species may have come from the wild) buying a pet that is hundreds of generations from ever seeing the wild is wrong.

Additionally, the domestic cat is nothing more than a slight variation of its species : Felis silvestris, libyca group (or better known as an African wildcat.)  

I agree that it is dangerous to keep wild animals as pets.  Exotic or unique breeds should not be confused with "wild" animals. Furthermore, if you subscribe to the rule that pets should never originate from descendants of wild animals, than you cannot own any birds, fish, ferrets, lizards, frogs, snails, or bugs either.

I love dogs and cats, too.  But as far as I know, (and correct me if I'm wrong) Sea Monkeys are the only pets without any direct lineage to "wild" animals.  

Thanks for your comments.

Guest's picture

Thank you, Linsey, for adding that your family has been involved in wild animal rescue, and that Wisebread does not advocate keeping wild animals as pets.

I did want to reply to your "Furthermore, if you subscribe to the rule that pets should never originate from descendants of wild animals, than you cannot own any birds, fish, ferrets, lizards, frogs, snails, or bugs either." which, I believe, was in response to my comment.

I have NEVER kept any of those as pets, for the very reason you cite: I subscribe to the rule that pets should never originate from descendants of wild animals. The closest I've ever come is living on property that my parents "own" which is bordered by a salt marsh, so frogs and turtles roam regularly during the summer months. We never caged any of them, nor did we ever purchase these, or other wild animals (bred in captivity or otherwise) for pets. I am not trained or equipped to care for a wild animal.

A financial/money-saving site like Wisebread, I would have thought, would be more familiar with supply-and-demand, in response to "...can be purchased at any of your Big Box pet supply megafranchises." As for "I personally don't understand how (even though the originating species may have come from the wild) buying a pet that is hundreds of generations from ever seeing the wild is wrong." I again, cite supply-and-demand, and wonder if caged animals can ever be truly happy. I am not trained or equipped to care for a wild animal and would never make the attempt unless I were so trained and could care for the animal in a life-size habitat (i.e. preserve).

If any of these animals can, indeed, be rescued, I'd support it even if I wouldn't do it myself. I'd hope, though, that the habitat created would be large and close to natural - and that is something I did NOT see in the original article.

(My cat, rescued from a no-kill shelter, is given a healthy diet, and has a veterinarian who is well-versed in my cat's species. He doesn't roam outside, much as he'd like to, because cars are not part of his original habitat but they remain a regular threat to him. His habitat, the entire house except for one bedroom that's off-limits, isn't as big as it would be in the wild, but he is a cat who constantly purrs and "performs," and except when he's at the aforementioned vet, he's a pretty happy boy. I've given him a better life than he had in the cage at the shelter.)

Guest's picture

I would like to first state that this posting was very helpful to me and I am adding a african frog to my unique pet collection.

Sea Monkeys are brine shrimp. Some companies that supply the classic Sea Monkey have bred them to be larger than the average brine shrimp and can reach a size of up to one inch. Also, the Sea Monster which is a triop is another fairly easy pet but they have a very short lifespan. The triop has three eyes and looks like a very small horseshoe crab, although some species of triops can reach a size of 4 inches. Both of these animals are "wild" and the triop's natural habitat is a rainwater pond. I am not aware of any living creature that does not have a direct lineage to a wild animal.

Andrea Karim's picture

Man, those brine shrimp are something, eh?

Well, I generally don't want to buy pets from pet stores. There's something inherently sad, at least for me, in seeing all those betas lined up in tiny cups with nothing to see or so but float sadly, looking at the other betas. I got really freaked out at a craft store upon finding that they were selling frogs as decorative accents for lucky bamboo arrangements.

That said, Lindsey has advocated for the adoption of hedgehogs and other pets from shelters in this thread. You can find all kinds of animals that needs homes, from hamsters to iguanas, by going to Petfinder. Also, keep in mind that not everyone can have a cat or a dog. Some people have allergies. Some people don't have the time. Some people live in apartment complexes that don't allow cats and dogs.

[I'm going to take a moment to point out something that I feel needs saying: just because one blogger says something on this web site doesn't mean that it's endorsed by the entire slate of bloggers. So far, no one (especially Lindsey) has written anything that I personally object to on Wise Bread, but there may come a time when someone posts something that other writers may politely disagree with. Don't assume that one writer's opinion speaks for everyone. "Wise Bread advice" does not come from a single source - we're a diverse group of writers from a wide range of backgrounds.]

With that out of the way, I still stand behind Lindsey's post here. She's not advocating anything morally objectionable.

Oh, and BTW, hissing cockroaches are awesome. I can't stand bugs, but they are pretty nifty.

Guest's picture

We have turtles. They cost about $5 each when we got them. They've lasted 5 years so far, we keep them in an old fish aquarium. They are the ultimate low maintenance survivor pet- once during a move we forgot and left them in the car overnight (in December). I guess they just hibernated or something, because they were alive under the ice!

And, they'll eat crickets, spiders, and moths caught around the house; my husband even taught ours to swim up to the glass and "knock" for food.

Guest's picture

Another inexpensive and interesting pet is the walking stick - but be careful not to let them out of the terrarium - you might never find them!

Guest's picture

bunnies are another animal sometimes suggested as an 'easy' pet, but like hedgehogs, they require constant handling from an early age, and much more space than any of the commercially available 'hutches' supply. (I think the usual rabbit hutch design came from when rabbits were kept until they got to casserole-size.) They also need a very varied diet (no pale lettuce, not too much carrot, varied fruit and veg, lots of dark leaves and hay), nail-clipping, and they don't take anaesthetics well, so most vets won't spay the females, only the males. Rabbit fans will tell you how wonderful they are, but they aren't as low-maintenance as some might imagine - definitely do your research if you are considering getting one. Ours are very cute and I like them, but I won't replace them when they pass on.

I'm sticking with adopting unwanted cats.

Guest's picture

First off I just want to say that this article was very helpful. My friend suggested an aquatic frog to me as a low maintenance pet, but I wasn't sure exactly what kind. So thank you for clearing that up!

Secondly, I want to throw my opinion out there about all the controversy over keeping wild animals captive. People will always look at caged animals and feel bad for them because that is a situation that we personally would not want to be in, but do animals think like humans? No. We don't know how or what they think, and we're quite a long ways from knowing. All animals, including ourselves, live for the ultimate goal of breeding. In that sense, I feel that it is wrong to keep wild animals because they cannot fulfill that lifelong goal.

In any case, don't apply our human morals to animals. I agree that it is always better for an animal to be out in the wild rather than in an enclosure, but it isn't a crime at all to want one as a pet. If anything it helps to educate us and give us a stronger sense of compassion for the quickly disappearing creatures in this world. I do wish that sellers would be more strict about who receives what animals though and have a more limited variety. I'm tired of hearing about all of the full-up animal shelters that have to constantly put animals down. :(

Just remember that if you are to purchase a typically-wild animal, try your best to mimic their natural habitat as closely as possible. READ BEFORE YOU BUY!!!

Guest's picture

Hey thanks for the help! I am a home schooler but my Mom and Dad cannot live with a smelly/high maintenance/expensive/big/weird/normal pet. I am going to have to look into the hedgies! Thanks!

Guest's picture

Okay. Listen here.

Over the years I have had
2 horses
2 cats
1 dog
fish tanks
albino corn snake

I currently have one horse and a rabbit.

Chameleon and hedgehog.

HEDGEHOGS crap all over thier cages and its squishy and the smelliest poop Ive ever smelled (even when eating a proper diet, and not that commercial hedgie food crap)
THEY STINK. oh my god they smell so horrible. Tried 319843 beddings too.
ALSO: thier health: I found it really hard to keep on top of two things: his ears: even with medication, his ears kept cracking and it looked painful and they were yellow and gross. I couldnt get rid of it. And cutting thier nails every week or two blows. They can break thier legs if you have a mesh/wire wheel.....
They run on thier wheels and make noise all night, even when I tried to get him on my schedule......
he was fun to play with/bathe, and he liked to give me kisses/suck on my hair..... even so, he wouldnt uncurl if anyone else was in the room. He'd hiss and stress himself out if there was any noise..... hated people who werent me.



A horse is easier to take care of than a hedgehog.

Beginner pets: Rats. Rabbits! (just clean his cage lots and leave him alone if he doesnt want to be picked up and he should be nicer than a cat)

Guest's picture
Friendly Advice Giver

I have 2 small corrections to this list,from my personal ownership experience,Hermit crabs are actually very high maintenance.Hermit crabs can die very easily due to a need for a very specialized hand made diet and the fact that they have gills but can also drown,so I would not place them on this list.

Guest's picture

Depending on what you personally class as "low-maintenance", I favour rats. My three girls have a nice big cage (two tiers with plenty of toys to keep them occupied) that takes maybe 10 minutes to clean daily, they get to run around and explore the living room for however long I let them out (usually between half an hour and an hour, depending), and letting them explore me while I'm reading or on the computer keeps them well socialised and is just plain fun.

There's a bit of "preventative maintenance" you have to perform if you're going to let them free range - keeping electrical cords and chewables out of reach is the big one - but for $12 each and maybe that much per month in food and litter, they've definitely stolen my heart. :-)

Meg Favreau's picture

I was just talking with some friends last night about how rats are supposed to be great pets. Everyone I've spoken to has great things to say about how intelligent and affectionate they can be.

Guest's picture
IRS tax relief programs

Hi! I think I will stick with the dogs. The alternatives are smaller and harder to play around. IMHO