One note to the reader:
Please read the article below for a note on animal lovers who are not in a position to responsibly own a pet and don't want to put a companion animal in solitary confinement throughout business hours.
If you're just looking for links about what to buy, Tribbles were the best thing I knew of when this article was originally written. Since then, there are Furreal Friends, which seem designed to give pleasure to children, and Joy for All Silver Cat with White Mitts appears specifically created for the pleasure of adult animal lovers.
Years back, one friend, Cynthia, explained why she will never own a furry pet. An editor, her work often allows her to be in her apartment building during business hours, and when she walks through the halls, she hears so many whimperings, whinings, barks, and the like, every one of them saying, "Will you come in and be with me?"
That conversation made an impression on me. I am an animal lover. I grew up with a dog about the house, kept kind and gentle care of a lab even when her barking cut into my sleep, and when I am visiting my brother Joe's house, I love to see his cats. And I would love to have a furry cubicle pet. But the options there are somewhat limited, and not only because bosses sometimes have to say "No" to eccentric behavior. Though there have been workplaces where employees were welcome to bring well-behaved dogs, (see, for a rare example, Dreaming in Code), bringing a pet to work beyond a fish appropriately would include either transporting the pet with you or leaving your pet unattended for sixty or so hours straight each weekend, keeping the animal in an enclosed space without freedom to wander or explore, and so on. Now hamsters are solitary creatures and for what I know now, it might be possible to keep a hamster cage in a cubicle, leaving only problems like pet dander irritating other employees' allergies. But on the whole, the question of how to keep an office pet without cruelty is a difficult question.
And, up to a point at least, for a single person to keep a pet at home is dodgy. Families and people who work out of their homes are a separate case, and two or more cats may be able to keep each other company, but if you have a fulltime job or serve as a consultant, the question of how to keep a pet without cruelty may be a bit of a challenge.
Some common and respected practices are in fact cruel. My brother has taken in rescue cats which were already declawed, but he and my sister-in-law have never declawed a cat they owned. The common statement is that even front declawing a kitten is like cutting a baby's fingers off at the knuckles. My brother added that declawed cats are not, in fact, safer for owners to deal with: for a cat with front claws, the first line of defense is a swipe with claws which is only an abrasion, while for a declawed cat the first line of defense is abite, which is a puncture wound. Not only is that a more serious wound, but the puncture wound exposes you to whatever bacteria live in the cat's mouth, and mouths tend to have lots of infectious bacteria. Strange as it may sound, if you have a cat, you want the cat to be able to swipe its claws at you if it's cornered, angry, or afraid. It's better than a declawed cat's bite.
I have swing-mounted horses, and I would happily do so now if the opportunity offered to me. To swing-mount a horse, you crouch down, get a good grip of the horse's mane with both hands, and leap up, pulling yourself up by the mane, and ideally land squarely on the horse's back, and this is not cruel. Different species have different thresholds of pain, and a lot of animals are tougher than us; the average horse's threshold of pain is seven times higher than the average human. This means, for instance, that you can grab a good bit of a horse's mane in your hand and pull as hard as you can, and not only will it not injure the horse, it won't cause pain or even really annoyance for the horse. Now horses can be skittish around people and may not be used to you, but if a horse is comfortable with your presence, yanking on its mane doesn't mean anything.
And different thresholds of pain apply to dogs, too. The dog I had growing up would leap and dance for joy when she saw a famiy member starting to reach for her leash, because she knew that meant she would go for a walk outside. Years later, a dog a few months old would leap and dance for joy when he saw me reaching for a specific pair of workgloves, because he knew that meant he could bite me significantly harder when we were playing. He had a very high threshold of pain, unusual for even a dog, and he expected me to have the same high threshold of pain, and so things felt more natural and pleasant for him when I wore gloves and allowed him to bite me harder. And there's no way those Thin gloves would have protected me if he were really trying to hurt me; if he had been trying to dodamage, he could have easily sliced through my gloves and cut me to the bone. He was pulling his punches with me, even when I was wearing gloves and I allowed him to bite me much harder. (It really was just horseplay.) Seeing as he didn't draw blood on me, chances are pretty good it was just friendly horseplay to him. (Although dogs do not eat a meat-only diet, both cats and dogs are predators with powerful jaws, and both are well strong enough to cut to the bone.) And really, from my perspective those interactions with the puppy were pleasant play, and from his perspective they were nice, friendly horseplay. I have felt no inclination to bite any of my pets, but if I had started nipping at him with equal force, his enjoyment would probably have been so much the better. Nothing says love like a playful nip and ten or twenty slobbery kisses.
That is part of why I am puzzled when I occasionally hear of a man who was training dogs, and as something the dogs would relate to, bit the dogs for discipline, and he was rightly arrested for cruelty to animals. Part of my response was, "Um... why? Was he biting the dogs too hard? Did he draw blood? Did he misunderstand some detail of how an adult dog would use biting to discipline a younger dog? Did the police enforcing the anti-cruelty laws for animals have any idea of what normal social interaction between dogs looks like?" I thought of wearing gloves with that one puppy because I found his playful nips more painful than I wanted, but I can say in general of cats and dogs, that if it nips or bites you and it doesn't draw blood, it almost certainly wasn't trying to hurt you. Even if, perhaps, we need to draw lines and train dogs that they need to restrain their natural playfulness when horsing around with people, which most dogs purchased as pets can do well enough.
But more broadly than cats and claws, the question of how a single working person can responsibly own a furry pet without cruelty is difficult (I do not say necessarily impossible: but at least difficult). And I've explored a few things, starting when I was in grad school in 2007.
For reasons I don't completely understand, people have made electronic pets that you wouldn't want to pet; there is a whole line of artificial cats, dogs, etc. that are usually not furry and do not look like something you'd want to pet. Just search for something like robot pet and look at the pictures.
But by accident, that's not the whole picture. I managed to get a Furby 2.0, and it seemed to be very well-done for its target audience of children, but have unnerving "uncanny valley"-like effects on me as an adult. I got my money's worth out of the purchase; I gave it to a friend's two-year-old where it became an almost instant hit and may have become his favorite toy. (Before letting it go, I quite deliberately gave it a fresh set of batteries, and showed both his parents where the "Off" switch was.)
Cue Star Trek. I am not the world's biggest Star Trek fan personally speaking; there was one conversation when cell phones had recently become a common thing to have, and a friend was gushing about Star Trek, and said, "And cell phones! What would our society be like today if there were no Star Trek?" (My response: "We would have had much better science fiction?") But Star Trek has many devoted fans, enough that when conditions would support it, it was economically viable to sell live, robotic, spayed-and-neutered Tribbles.
There is a large variety of Tribble merchandise; I have had medium and small Tribbles, and the small ones have been much less interactive. But for a cubicle pet and for people like me who would like to own something furry but aren't in a position to take on a live pet responsibly and without cruelty in solitary confinement or whatnot, a Tribble may be the nicest thing out there.
If you'd like something vaguely furry without worrying if you are treating a pet cruelly, I would recommend one of the following: