[last update 15 Dec 2008]
Forthcomming PTR 3.0.8 patch includes nerfing for scorpid poison and cat rake as well as several other hunter nerfs. Volley will be reduced by 30%. I suspect that this will actually help gorillas (and carrion birds and crocs and bears as well) maintain aggro on groups.
I'll revise the below pet families once the changes hit live servers.
Note for patch 3.0.3:
Some exotic pets got a boost in overall DPS. This should make 51-point Beastmaster specialists happy, since their special benefit is now more on a par with the other tree's 51 point talent. The difference however should be minor, enough so that even BM specialists do not need to take exotics to be viable.
Cat's Rake ability has been weakened somewhat. I'll have to retest and compare them with raptors. *done*
The cost for pet specials has been reduced to 20 (from 25) focus. This should help autocasting priority so they go off more frequently when cooldowns are up.
There are a great many changes in the way pets work in the new expansion. Inspired by the fine work done by Znodis at The Mystic Hunter I've attempted to do a quick PvE focused guide to pet choices.
More than at any time in wow history, all pet families are now viable as levelling pets. They can also probably all serve well enough in PvP, Arena and as tanks in instances. Properly specced Tenacity pets can even tank heroic instances, as evidenced by the competition going on now at Big Red Rhino
My reviews were done on various hunters in the level 20 to 30 range. They all spent the first 12 talent points in marksmanship, to get the go for the throat talent, then moved over to beastmastery. None of these hunter alts has particularly spectacular gear for their level. I used aspect of the hawk for most fights, switching to viper when low on mana.
Pets get a talent point at level 20, 24 and 28. Nearly all pets were freshly tamed wild ones, so started out up to 5 levels below the hunter. I spent talent points in dash/dive or charge, then the next in cobra reflexes. Some hunters had bought the glyphs for mend pet and serpent sting, both a minor boost to overall longevity in the field.
None of the Outland only, Northrend only, or exotic pets were able to be tested due to using low level hunters. These reviews are only of families available to hunters as they level up. Nearly all families are accessible by the mid 20's, so there's plenty on offer.
The pets in the Cunning families are not always first choices for a levelling pet. They are mainly aimed at PvP and utility in groups but can still serve admirably as a general use companion.
Bats: Tested Vampiric Mistbat*
When testing Dragonhawks on a level 21 hunter, I also grabbed a bat from the same area then levelled them up to 20. Bats are ok as pets and their stun effect will be useful in PvP, but like other disabling effects its on a too-long cooldown to be useful as a general use pet. Little Vlad, my bat, would tank several similar level mobs easily enough but struggled against tougher opponents. This was one of the last pets I tested so perhaps rushed a bit. Bats are decent but not great pets for levelling.
Birds of Prey: Tested Strigid Hunter.
Blizzard stole my screech AOE effect from this pet. Snatch has plenty of potential in PvP but I'm not yet convinced of its effects in PvE. This pet has barely left the stables since patch, so this test is not yet complete.
Chimaeras: Exotic, Untested.
Dragonhawks: Tested *
All the lower level Dragonhawks used to be the weaker "caster" pets pre patch. That has thankfully been fixed in the 3.x world. Their flame breath attack has been nerfed back to being a single target effect rather than a short range AOE. Unfortunately they also seem to suffer the range attack bug that some other pets now seem cured of - they "stutter" forward until in range of their breath. Once in melee they are ok, autocasting breath fairly reliably but the initial attack is annoying. Overall, the Dragonhawk did rather well as a levelling pet. He made short work of Luzran and Knucklehead, then burnt down several adds that had joined in all without much trouble. Quite a likeable pet, despite its flaws.
Nether Rays: Outland only, Untested.
Ravagers: Tested Ravager Specimen.
A ravager makes a decent enough pet. I like the various animations, especially swim. Easy diet, strong dps. The special attack is a 2 second stun but on a longish 40 sec cooldown so doesn't see much usefulness in PvE. Might be better bound on a macro. The ravager has most definitely fallen from its perch as the favourite raiding pet.
Serpents: Tested Deviate Viper.
The serpent special attack poison spit is quite a useful one. With a 10 sec cooldown, its ready to go frequently during fights. It is both a DoT and an anti-caster debuff. It seems that the run-back-to range behaviour that these guys used to have before the patch has gone. A serpent with Dash is a really nice companion.
Silithids: Exotic, Untested.
Spiders: Tested Wildthorn Stalker.
I grabbed a random spider while travelling through Ashenvale. Pre-patch, a spider was a barely adequate pet. Now they are pretty handy creatures to have at your side. Mine easily tanked two mobs 4 levels above it with only mend pet to keep it going. The 40 second cooldown on its web ability is a bit long for levelling use, but if bound to a macro rather than autocast is a handy trick for preventing fleeing mobs. It will be extremely useful in PvP as well.
Spore Bats: Outland only, Untested.
Wind Serpents: Tested Deviate Stinglash.
Once the premier raiding pet for well geared hunters with lots of crit %, Wind serpents have never been one of my favourites. The 10sec cooldown on their lightning breath means its available often in a fight... but its rather underwhelming. Serpent's poison spit is faster, does more damage, shoots further and has a nice debuff that LBr lacks. They seem to have had the annoying run-to-range bug mostly fixed which is nice. The little winged snakes tank reasonably well and have some really nice skins but I'd prefer some other pet. Raiders might still be interested if LB scales with ranged attack power, but poison spit doesn't. I have no data either way as yet.
The ferocity families generally offer skills aimed at increasing damage. They generally lack the pure toughness and survivability of the tenacity pets but make up for it by killing things quickly. Raiders will favour Ferocity pets when they are not expected to tank. A ferocity pet will likely prove to be a good choice for a general use companion.
Carrion Birds: Tested Swoop.
Screech pre-patch was one of the best skills for hunters taking on multiple opponents. It is pretty much unchanged in 3.02, remaining single target damage, and multiple target debuff. I've only briefly tested my original pet, a Swoop from Mulgore, but it looks like it holds up fairly well. Carrion birds were lesser cousins to Owls pre-patch but now have come to the fore as levelling pets.
Cats: Tested Ghost Saber, and several others. (re-tested for 3.0.3)
Cats were third on the DPS totem pole pre patch. Testing by other hunter bloggers indicates they may now be top, at least until the exotics get their buff in a forthcoming patch. (* implemented in 3.0.3). Regardless, cats are an awesome pet. They come in a huge variety of skins to chose from at every level range making them readily accessible. Prowl, though it will be turned off most of the time, makes a nice addition on the occasions it can be used. Rake, the main family skill, is on a short timer, does reasonable damage and is a DoT. It is listed as bleed damage, so some monsters will be immune. Overall, cats still make great pets.
The slight reduction in damage on rake that was introduced in 3.0.3 makes little difference. Rake still contributes roughly 14% of the cats damage output vs 3% for raptor's Savage rend.
Core Hounds: Exotic, Untested.
Devilsaurs: Exotic, Untested.
Hyenas: Tested Hecklefang Stalker. *Updated*
Hyenas are ferocity pets with utility in pvp. Tendon Rip is one of the disabling moves with the shortest cooldown of the lot at 20 seconds. It is also a slight DoT but it is mostly its slowing effect that makes it nice. Hyenas also have a fairly extensive series of animations and interesting sound effects. A better than average pet for levelling.
Moths: Tested Vale Moth.
Moths are a curious inclusion in the ferocity tree. Their family special "Serenity Dust" is both an attack power buff and a minor heal to the pet, helping it fight and survive longer. It is on a longish 1-minute cooldown so isn't as useful as it could be for a levelling pet but does help in most fights. The only currently tameable moth for low level characters is the dirty white one in Azuremyst isle, past a bunch of high level guards making it a hard tame for horde players. It might just be worth the trip though; in my fairly limited testing, the little flying bug tanks like a champ and the self-heal keeps it going longer than otherwise. It also goes quite well with one of the moth small pets as a companion.
Raptors: Tested Deviate Slayer. (re-tested vs cat in 3.0.3 patch)
Raptors are yet again second string cats. Savage rend is a slightly more powerful version of cat's Rake, but its on a way too long cooldown of 1 minute. This makes it useful in most fights if you are pulling one at a time but not so good if you have a bunch at once, or chain fights really closely. A fierce raptor is a fine companion to have at your side. Mine helped me mostly-clear wailing caverns solo at level 23 - but frankly wasn't as good as the trash pet cat I took in originally.
The retest at patch 3.0.3 indicates that the long cooldown on rend is really hurting. Savage rend represented only 3-4% of the raptor's total damage output. Cats are still much better.
Spirit Beasts Exotic, Untested.
Tallstriders: Tested Fleeting Plainstrider.
Tallstriders need some love. Their Dust Cloud skill has some possibilities as an AOE grinding skill but has too limited an effect and a stupidly long cooldown. If left on autocast, it will be used at the start of a fight, before you've gathered a bunch of mobs and its special effect will be wasted. As a member of the ferocity family, a tallstrider does decent damage and its talent tree has some excellent abilities but then again, so does every other ferocity pet. There are far better choices. Almost any other pet is a better choice!
Wasps: Outland only, Untested. (The ones in Azeroth are all untameable at this time).
Rumour has it that wasps suffer slightly lessened damage per second than other similar pets. This is believed to be a bug!
Wolves: To be tested*
I had a brief test of an Ashenvale wolf at the time I tested spider. They did ok, but their family skill is mainly a group oriented ability. For a levelling pet, they are like a slightly buffed tallstrider.
The tenacity family mostly have skills that improve their ability to tank... by increasing damage, by debuffing enemies, or by protecting themselves. Tenacity pets at higher levels have talents that make them viable tanks or off-tanks for parties in instances, something that is beyond the reach of most other families. They also make good choices for solo play but are perhaps less useful in PvP.
Bears: Tested Ashenvale Bear and similar.
Bears are great pets. Charge makes them fast enough to get to the enemy and their family skill, Swipe, is a fast, damaging, MULTI TARGET attack. Bears are great for the kind of limited AOE grinding that most levelling as a hunter seems to consist of. They are tough as nails and hold the attention of a small group through any mend pets needed. The charge animation on a low-level bear looks like an attack wombat on a skateboard! There are a fair variety of looks to chose from and they are reasonably well animated. Overall, a great pet choice.
Boars: Tested Corrupted Mottled Boar, and others. (Bugfix to gore in patch 3.0.3. Needs retesting)
Several patches ago, Boars were THE premier levelling pet. Their gore and charge abilities made for the single best threat generation in the game. That has all changed now though. All Tenacity pets can get charge and gore has been somewhat nerfed. Gore is still a pretty good skill with a shortish cooldown but there are better tenacity pets to look at. Still a good choice for pet.
Crabs: Tested Encrusted Surf Crawler. *Updated*
Crabs get Pin for their family skill. Its a 4-second immobilise (not stun) and channelled DoT on a sadly long 40-second cooldown. I feel this is of more use on a pvp cunning pet than a tenacity tank and the cooldown is far too long for general use. Like the other tenacity families, a crab does fine but lacks that extra something to make it a great pet.
Crocolisks: tested Deviate Crocolisk.
Bad attitude has potential as an AOE grinding skill. It is a bit like Druid's thorns spell, in that its reactive damage to any attacker. It has a long 2 min cooldown but also lasts for 45 seconds so should last through most fights and be ready to go again when you pull the next bunch. Crocolisks have an incredibly annoying breathing sound and somewhat dubious animation which probably put me off this pet too quickly. I'll have to test again more thoroughly... with sound off!
Gorillas: To be tested* (Note: the lowest level Gorilla is level 32, a bit high for this project.)
I've grabbed a gorilla on my level 43 hunter. Even unfed, poorly talented and with only leather gear on the hunter, this guy is dynamite. Thunderstomp is absolutely brilliant for AoE work. The combination of TS, volley and aspect of the viper makes levelling and farming activities so easy! This guy is quite clearly the best available pet for levelling. I'll be going back and continuing to work on this, with a properly equipped hunter and a tanking focussed pet talent tree.
Rhinos: Exotic, Northrend only, Untested.
Scorpids: Tested Silithid Creeper. *Updated*
(Patch 3.0.3 reduced the damage of the scorpid poison skill, but also reduced the focus cost of the ability. This may make this pet more viable)
As a tenacity pet, Scorpids are nice hardy little tanks, able to take on several mobs around their level at once. Scorpid poison is a decent enough skill with a short cooldown. The problem for lowbie hunters is that its competing for focus with the claw skill. This means that it often fails to go off at all, or gets only one or two in a stack. Turning off claw allows full 5-stacks to build up quickly, but it decreases your dps.
Turtles: Tested Oasis Snapjaw. *Updated*
Shell Shield is the defining ability of Turtles. It's 50% damage reduction for 12 seconds every 1 minute. This could potentially be the strongest pure tanking pet in the game, great for taking on tough elites, or perhaps tanking in heroics. However, in the lower levels he's just slow and boring. I might re-test this family on my highest hunter to see if one with a bunch more talent points is better.
Warp Stalkers: Outland only, Untested.
Worms: Exotic, Untested.