Having pets in school classrooms is a somewhat controversial subject. For every good point that's raised (e.g. promoting empathy, entertainment, learning about animals and their care) there are bad points (e.g. poor environment for the pet, rough handing, disorganized or absent medical care, disease transmission, fear, allergies, distraction). Some organizations have developed detailed guidelines for using animals in classrooms, but animals are often in classrooms with little consideration of the issues. Little is known about what happens with these pets. We tried to do a survey of teachers from some school boards a few years ago and only ended up getting about two responses out of hundreds of eligible teacher participants (the overall lack of support from board administration didn't really help get the survey out and get teachers interested either, but that's another story). So, we really don't have a good idea of the types of animal contact that occur in classrooms or the problems that result, but we know from various case reports that complications like infections can and do occur.
PetSmart and the Pet Care Trust have a "Pets in the Classroom" program where kindergarten to grade six teachers can get support for having a pet in the classroom. Their release outlines a few of their perceived benefits, and some of the complexities of having pets in classrooms. Their points are in italics, with some comments from me.
Hamsters make fun classroom pets because they are active and teach children the importance of schedules and responsibilities.
- Yes and no. They can be entertaining, but they can also be distracting. You have to differentiate something that's a novelty from something that is being used as part of the educational curriculum. Hamsters can be injured with rough handling by young children and close supervision is required. They may also bite when handled, especially when handled by young kids who don't know what they are doing. Plans to take care of the hamster over holidays and the summer are needed, and are often not considered in advance. The disease risks of hamsters are relatively low, but not non-existent. Having nocturnal animals in a busy daytime setting is also questionable ethically.
Guinea Pigs are easily handled and encourage children to follow a regimented routine.
- They are similar to hamsters in their benefits and risk, but their larger size makes them more robust and less prone to handling injury. They are probably one of the better mammals to have in a classroom, but still require good organization, planning and practices.
Fish are a great way to illustrate basic chemistry and biology principles while students follow regularly scheduled water changes.
- Fish can be great classroom animals. There are ways to incorporate them into the curriculum, from behaviour to animal care to feeding to water quality and environmental concerns. They need some care, with regular feeding and proper water maintenance, but with basic supervision and planning, the risks to the animals and people are minimal and they can be of benefit educationally.
Bearded Dragons depend on their environment for heating and cooling and are a great way to teach about geography and the environment.
- Bearded dragons (see image) are great little reptiles with a lot of personality. However, they have specific requirements for care and feeding, something that cannot be easily fulfilled in a lot of classrooms. Also, being reptiles, they are high risk for Salmonella shedding. In a low risk household, it's not a big deal with basic hygiene practices. However, in a classroom with lots of kids, perhaps limited enforcement of hygiene, and kids eating in the area where the reptile is, the risks get higher. General guidelines are that children less than five years of age and people with compromised immune systems should not have contact with reptiles. This means they should not be in kindergarten classrooms or rooms where such students may spend time. More complicated is the issue of immunocompromised individuals. I'm not convinced that teachers always know when one of their students is immunocompromised, and what happens if there's an established pet and a student becomes immunocompromised? Bottom line: Reptiles shouldn't be in classrooms.
Leopard Geckos are docile in nature and teach children about different nocturnal behaviors.
- These are interesting little critters, but not good classroom pets, like other reptiles, for the reasons outlined above. Nocturnal pets may not be great for classrooms either since the daytime activity and disruption may be harmful to them in the long term.
Certain pets can be good additions to certain classrooms, with some logical planning and common sense, but poor planning and bad animal choices can be harmful to students and animals. School boards should be proactive and develop or adopt sound protocols for classroom pets.