It starts with a sneeze. Within weeks you're taking your child to an allergy specialist, pitching all stuffed animals and replacing your carpeting with no-wax floors.

Worst of all, you're advised to relocate the family pet so the afflicted child will never again have to inhale allergens from the beloved dog, cat, guinea pig, hamster or rabbit. Or else you're told in so many words that you can never, ever be the owner of a puppy or kitten. In either case, many tears are shed.

Those parents who are secretly congratulating themselves on their petlessness can stop chortling:

There are alternative creatures. Try this one on for size: A boy's best friend is his ... frog ... salamander ... 6-foot iguana.

After numerous pet-store forays, Sandy Ricks of Herndon and her son Kyle, 7, who suffers from asthma, finally settled on a pair of newts.

Newts have several things to recommend them, Ricks points out: They are not snakes; they do not eat live insects; they are small, and they are durable.

Kyle's mom knew it was the right choice when, a day or two later, Kyle drew a portrait of himself and the pair. In a balloon over his head it read (in careful first-grade printing): "I like newts." Over their heads was the comment, "We like Kyle."

Allergist Donna Schuster agrees that children with allergic sensitivity should stick to amphibians, reptiles or fish.

"Even birds are known to cause asthma," Schuster says.

Frog is the name for any tailless amphibian. Salamanders are amphibians with tails -- such as newts. Reptiles include lizards, turtles and snakes.

Tom Taaffe, manager of Pet Mart in Tysons Corner, says amphibians have been popular pets for about the last six years.

"You can't take them for a walk, but they are interesting," he says. "You can set up little environments for them, learn about ecology; they don't take much effort; there are lots of them {3,000 species}. Frogs are the pet of the '90s."

Amphibians, representing the bridge between primordial aquatic life and land vertebrates, still require both a wet and dry environment.

Taaffe suggests a 10- or 20-gallon aquarium, stones, rocks, moss, logs and plants, arranged according to individual taste, for all the varieties of 1- to 3-inch frogs and toads.

Ryan Miller, 6, found and kept a tadpole, "Jaguar," in a mayonnaise jar this spring until it sprouted knobs and became a frog.

"I liked watching him swim and it was fun to see his tail disappear," Ryan says.

From keeping Jaguar, Ryan learned that tadpoles can eat fish food and oatmeal, but that a frog needs live insects (as do most amphibians and reptiles). He found out that a frog's bulging eyes help him eat -- by depressing them to force a bit of food down his throat. He had fun watching Jaguar's tongue -- jointed at the front of the mouth, flick out to grab his dinner.

Matthew Kirkpatrick, a second-grader with allergies to mammals, owns an anole, which is a common chameleon. "Speedy" sleeps in a cage in Matt's room and rides around the house on his shoulder.

"Speedy knows Matthew," says Matt's mother, Claire. "Last winter we thought we'd lost him. Speedy fell asleep on Matt's camouflage shirt and Matt forgot he was there. Speedy must have fallen off and disappeared. We thought he was gone for good. Then, two weeks later I was talking on the phone in the kitchen and Speedy just crawled out from under the blender."

Matt had taught Speedy to balance on two legs, but after the family went on a two-week vacation, the anole wouldn't do the trick any more.

"I think he's still mad that I went away," says Matt.

"I think these pets are great," says Matt's dad, Tim Kirkpatrick. "They're clean, quiet; they teach kids responsibility but you don't have to pay vet bills. One time Speedy was acting sick. We just sprayed him with a whole bunch of water.

"Last summer," continues Kirkpatrick, "Matt found two box turtles in the woods. He fashioned leashes for them out of twine and took them for walks. Sometimes Speedy hangs from the brim of Matt's baseball cap. Sometimes they fall asleep together at night."

Lynne Cabaniss, a veterinarian at Collins Hospital for Animals in the District, says amphibians make an educational hobby for children, but suggests that reptiles (such as Speedy) make better pets.

"I have pet leopard tortoises from Africa," she says. "They have distinct personalities. One is very shy and the other is aggressive and follows me all over."

The biggest health problem with exotic pets, says Cabaniss, is nutrition. They usually need more variety and protein, but there aren't a lot of sources of information. She suggests that new pet owners consult a veterinarian on diet for expensive exotic pets.

Cabaniss says the iguana, (a green lizard that looks like a toy rubber dinosaur) for example, is an herbivore that also needs protein.

"It makes a great pet," she says.

Anna Celestini, manager of Animal Adventure, a pet store near Chantilly, agrees. She says she and her staff get very fond of the iguanas, often buying them lunch at the Giant salad bar nearby.

"I always hate to sell one of them," she confesses.

The iguanas can grow to be 6 feet in length, most of it tail.

"If the iguana is domesticated when it is young, people can let it just roam around the house like a dog or cat," Celestini says. "If it's not used to people, though, it will whip with its tail to protect itself."

Jason Seybold, 8, of Sterling, kept a garter snake for three years.

"Daquie (the snake) had a lot of personality," says Jason's mother, Mary. "He'd come to the front of the aquarium when someone came in the room, and he loved music. When we'd play the stereo, he'd swing his head back and forth." Daquie died recently and was replaced by a brown snake that Jason found in the yard.

"This new one likes to play in the toy room with the kids," says Mary Seybold. "He hangs from the building blocks."

Says Jason's father, Jim: "It's neat. It's a perfect chance for a dad to relive his own childhood. I always wanted a snake but my parents were anti-reptile so here's my chance."

And how many parents today go in for exotic pets?

Quite a few, according to veterinarian Hanna Siemering of the Exotic Pet Clinic in Springfield. "My entire practice is exotic pets -- I don't see any dogs or cats," she says. She says turtle owners seem the most attached to their pets.

Turtles, however, aren't as readily available as other pets. Many local pet stores do not sell them because of a 1975 law restricting shipment and sale of turtles whose shells are less than 4 inches across. Prompted by the Food and Drug Administration, the law was enacted to protect people, especially children, from picking up salmonella from the turtles, according to FDA spokesman Emil Corwin, and it made turtle sales unprofitable for pet stores.

Reston Pet Shop owner Kris Dann says he still sees lots of turtles come into his shop, in the pockets of kids who have picked them out of a pond or woods.

According to veterinarian Siemering, the salmonella scare developed because reptile suppliers were feeding substandard meat scraps to the turtles. Turtles found in nature will not have salmonella, she says.

Adds Kris Dann: "We get several families a week looking for 'exotic pets.' The mom usually wants a fish tank and the child wants a snake. The mom usually gives in, then, a week later, I'll get a panicked phone call: 'MY SNAKE GOT LOOSE, HOW DO I FIND IT?' "

Snakes are great escape artists, agrees Celestini. "If their head can get through the cage, so can the rest of them. They usually try to find a warm, dark place."

Angela Stout of Alexandria has started her own pet consulting firm, Dr. Dolittle's Bag. She helps people locate unusual pets, and she has 11 reptiles of her own.

"Kids love them," she says. "The iguanas are playful and will ride on your shoulder. The boa I have now has a bit of a temper, but I used to have one who was very ladylike. She'd sit in your lap."

Most of the common varieties of frogs, newts, anoles and small lizards cost less than $10. Garter snakes, which come in lengths like gold chains, start at around $10 for a 4-incher. Small boas cost about $90.

The smallest available aquarium (10-gallon) costs about $10. Amphibians need gravel and a de-chlorinator for tap water, as well as a food supply. Newts will eat food sticks while frogs like insects. Reptiles need a warmer temperature, usually about 77 degrees, and it helps to buy them a heated rock.