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4 Fun Pets for Your Empty Nest

Cats and dogs aren't the only great companions. Add a little life to your home with birds, fish, rabbits — or even a rat!

By Debbie Swanson | February 5, 2013

If you're like many new empty nesters, you may be discovering that a quieter, cleaner home isn't as relaxing or refreshing as you thought it would be. A pet can restore the missing energy — and by providing you with activity, love and companionship, it can reduce stress, helping to keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels down, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

(MORE: 6 Best Small Dogs for Your Empty Nest)

Your new pet doesn't have to be a cat or dog, either: People who dread the idea of clawed furniture or late-night walks in the rain can take their pick of some terrific, fairly low-maintenance companions that better suit their home and lifestyle. Here are four options that can perk things up:

Birds: Musicians on Call

Birds are fun to watch and listen to, and can lift the mood of a quiet afternoon. They adapt well to the indoors and range greatly in size, color, vocalization and personality.

"Be sure to choose a hand-fed bird that was raised by a human," advises veterinarian Julie Burge of Burge Bird Services in Grandview, Mo. A local rescue facility or breeder can help you find a bird that has been well socialized. "Hand-fed budgies, cockatiels, lovebirds or parrotlets are great tame, small parrots," she says.

Not every bird will fit in every home, Burge says. "Many large parrots love to be held and petted," she says, "but they require much more space, make a lot of noise and can inflict some serious bites."

Seeking conversation of a sort? Male budgies can develop the largest vocabulary of any member of the parrot family, although not every one will talk. You may also get a few words out of a male parakeet.

If your preference is a calmer, more affectionate bird, Burge recommends a ringneck dove. "They're safe, even for young children," she says, "and they have a beautiful cooing voice." Finches and canaries are other easy-to-manage choices, she says: "They'll provide plenty of entertainment as they chirp, flutter about and interact with each other."

You'll need a cage with space for flying; since most species enjoy a companion, you'll ideally have room for two. Each cage should have water, food and bathing bowls, though some birds will prefer to drink from a water bottle. (Place the bowls where they're unlikely to be the target of dropping waste.) Daily care will include freshening the food and water, changing cage linings, monitoring your bird's health and, of course, sharing your company. (Click here for Burge Bird Services' guide to bird care.)

Rabbits: The Quietest Roommate

Most bunny owners today shun backyard hutches and instead welcome their pets inside. "Rabbits are fascinating to watch, whether at play or at rest," says Doreen Reynolds-Consolati of the rescue group House Rabbit Connection in Springfield, Mass. "Some may take time to warm up to you, but once they do form that bond, it's very strong, with trust and affection."

Rabbits are intelligent and respond well to treat-based or clicker training. Most can learn to use a litter box and live cage-free in a rabbit-proofed home. If that's too much freedom for your comfort, most rabbits will be happy in a roomy cage or pen, provided they can get out daily. "Rabbits should have two hours of out-of-cage time for play and exercise every day," Reynolds-Consolati says. Let your bunny hop freely in a rabbit-proofed room, or sample the outdoors in a safe, fully enclosed pen.

Rabbits also enjoy simple toys, Reynolds-Consolati says. Daily playtime can involve cardboard boxes or tubes, old phone books with the covers removed, balled-up newspaper or jingling keys. "They like to shred, toss and chew."

Unlike other animals, a rabbit's personality isn't closely tied to its breed. Some are social, some are aloof and others are playful. If you're in the market, seek a reputable rescue group that knows its rabbits and can help you find a good match. "Because they are prey animals by nature, many do not like to be picked up or held," Reynolds-Consolati says.

But aside from occasional brushing, rabbits don't need much upkeep — they'll keep themselves very clean. (Click here for House Rabbit Connection's guide to rabbit care.)

Fish: Tranquil and Entertaining

They may not be the most interactive pets, but aquarium fish can certainly display personality and provide entertainment. If you tend to take long weekends, goldfish may be the perfect pet for you, because most can survive unattended for a few days in a clean, properly maintained tank.

(MORE: The Village Movement: Redefining Aging in Place)

Keeping fish can be an engaging hobby. Start with a freshwater tank and invest some time and money to make it suitable for guests. A starter kit is the most economical way to get the basic gear you need. Then you can upgrade as you see fit — part of the fun is acquiring interesting decorations and environments for your fish to explore. The diversity you can create with an assortment of fish can be engrossing, but be sure to ask your pet shop for advice about compatible fish.

As you gain experience with your freshwater tank, you can add live plants or more exotic fish or upgrade to a saltwater tank. Minimal daily care involves feeding and monitoring for foreign objects or diseased fish. Routine water and filter changes are also necessary, as well as vacuuming. (Click here for the ASPCA's guide to pet fish care.)

Rats: Smart and, Yes, Social

If you've ever tried to get an unwanted rat out of your house, you know they're smart. You may not know that rats bred as pets are also clean, healthy and easily litter-box trained. A pet rat will respond to your voice, learn tricks and enjoy spending time with you.

(MORE: The Suburbs Are No Place to Grow Old)

"Most rats like a quiet household, without quick, loud noises," so your empty nest may be the perfect home, says Jenna Lillibridge, director of Any Rat Rescue in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"Of all the small mammals, rats are the most intelligent," Lillibridge says, and you'll marvel at their problem-solving skills. "Watch them try to drag a bagel or pizza crust into an opening. It doesn't fit, they back out and try another angle."

Rats enjoy living in a wire cage or glass aquarium with some tubes for crawling and hiding. They'll also need a sturdy food bowl and water bottle.

Pet rats become attached to their owners and will want to spend time with you each day. Your little rodent will sit on you while you watch TV or travel on your shoulder. They also need daily exercise. "Let them explore in a rat-proof area, like a bathroom or empty closet," Lillibridge suggests. Once you get to know your rat, you may feel comfortable letting him wander in other safe rooms. But keep in mind that they love to chew, jump high and squeeze into small openings.

Only buy your rat from a reputable breeder or rescue organization. Rats are happier if they have a friend, so consider acquiring a pair. (Click here for the ASPCA's guide to pet rat care.)

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