Back to School: A New Pet for the Teacher and the Class

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By Victoria Heuer August 03, 2010 at 10:55AM / (1) comments

It’s the start of a new academic year — a time to turn over a new leaf, a time to turn leaves into… salad. For the classroom pet, that is.

Whether you’re the teacher, the student, or a parent working as a teacher’s helper, you may be thinking that this would be a great year to include a real animal in the classroom. That is a wonderful idea since there are scads of opportunities for learning from animals. But before you run off to the pet store for a cute little wonder pet of your own, do your research. You should begin by checking with your school’s policy on classroom pets and getting the go-ahead from the school principal, who will also tell you which animals are preapproved for the classroom. Once that has been settled, do your own research into which animal is best suited for your class.

Just because an animal has been approved for the class does not make it an ideal choice for your class. Think about this: if everyone in your neighborhood had tigers, would you get one too? The same goes even for small and seemingly harmless animals. The class down the hall may have had a great time with their turtle last year, but that does not make turtles a good choice. In fact, since 1975, when a severe outbreak of turtle related salmonellosis infected thousands of children across the U.S., turtles have been banned by the FDA for sale as pets, though this has not prevented their sale as such. The same is true for most other reptiles and amphibians — they are not advised for the classroom. However, with appropriate planning and guidelines, exceptions might be made.

If cute and furry is more your inclination, stick with the small quiet types that sleep at night. Then you can be sure they’ll be awake during the daytime. Above all, choose an animal that you like, since you are the one who will be spending the majority of time with it at the end of the day, at the end of the week, and at the end of the school year.

Some of the top questions to ask yourself before adopting a class pet:

  • Who will be paying for the food, supplies, and possible veterinary care for this animal?
  • Is there enough space in the classroom for this pet?
  • Have I chosen a pet with minimal risk or that is appropriate for my class’s age and handling level? (All animals carry a risk of transmissible disease.)

Keep it simple and stick with the classics. Here are some brief examples of the best and worst pets for the classroom:

Best:

  • Guinea pigs, rats, mice, and gerbils are great choices, since they are active during the day, love to socialize, and take well to being handled. There are many different species of each from all over the world, making them perfect for research assignments. And make sure to do your research first, as each has its own special type of habitat needs.
  • Goldfish and Bettas (aka, Siamese fighting fish), are excellent classroom choices, for their ease of care, feeding, and relatively long lifespans. They are also regarded as intelligent creatures, with the ability to form long-term memories. Their histories, habits, and capacities for learning can be relevant topics for study and discussion.

Worst:

  • Hamsters are nocturnal, so they will not be interested in daylight activities. The worry is that children may become impatient and try to engage the hamster, waking them and causing undue stress.
  • Reptiles and amphibians are both highly discouraged, since both carry an unacceptable risk of Salmonella infection. This includes the small aquarium turtles, which can transmit Salmonella even without direct contact.
  • Rabbits are cute, but they are generally regarded as too wild or easily startled, resulting in scratches from their strong hind legs when they are held. They also require a large amount of space for exercise, a factor that is not easily available in most classrooms.
  • Birds tend to be loud — not welcome during a test — and are also very sensitive to temperature change, making their location in a room a primary concern. Grooming is also important, as their wings will need to be professionally clipped to prevent accidental escapes.

The species of animal and age of the class are strong indicators of what would make a great class pet. Why not do some research, make a list of the choices, have a discussion of the pros and cons of each, and have the class vote on it? Then you can be sure that all are invested in the best outcome for the pet.

Here are some great links to get you started:

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