A recent press release from The Pet Care Trust reported on the status of its Pets in the Classroom program, which provides support to teachers to have pets in school classrooms. On the surface, it seems like a fine concept, helping to enrich school activities. However, it’s one of those ideas that can do a lot of good, or it can also be very bad, depending on how the program is run.The Pet Care Trust has some useful information about pets in classrooms, and anyone considering having a pet in a classroom needs to be aware of a variety of concerns, including:

  • Welfare of the pets (e.g. minimizing stress, preventing abuse)
  • Adequacy of pet care, particularly during weekends and holidays
  • Access to and cost of veterinary care
  • Distraction of students
  • Allergies
  • Fear
  • Infectious disease transmission

Given the topic of this blog, I’ll focus on the last one.

Infectious disease transmission from pets in classrooms is a real problem. Zoonotic infections can and do occur in these situations. The risks are quite variable, and depending on the animal, children, classroom and pet care, can range from inconsequential to quite serious.

The type of animal is very important. Certain species are very high risk for carrying particular infectious diseases and for transmitting them to people. Reptiles are notorious for Salmonella, so it is recommended that children under five years of age and immunocompromised individuals (among others) not have contact with reptiles. Even with older kids there’s a risk, and older kids have picked up Salmonella in classrooms from reptiles or a reptile’s food (e.g. frozen rodents).

So, it’s concerning that 435 of the 2066 grants handed out by this program were for reptiles, and included kindergarten to Grade 6 classrooms. A lot of reptiles went into classrooms with a lot of young kids. Typically, elementary school children (at least around here) eat in their classrooms, which raises even more concern. While the majority of students would be five years of age or older, immunocompromised kids are not exactly uncommon, and it’s unclear whether teachers have adequate knowledge of whether kids in their classes are immunocompromised, nor whether they understand that such children are at increased risk of disease from classroom pets.

I’m not saying pets in classrooms are a bad idea. However, it’s often done poorly and with little forethought. To be effective and safe, you need to consider many things, such as:

  • What species should it be? From my standpoint, no reptiles or other high-risk species (e.g. baby chicks) should be in any classroom, because you can’t guarantee a high-risk person won’t be around. The animal needs to be small enough to be properly housed in a classroom. Its care requirements need to be basic and readily met. It shouldn’t be a species that gets stressed easily, and it needs to be an animal that can tolerate all the activities that go on around it (e.g. a nocturnal species is probably not a good idea).
  • What types of hygiene/infection control practices need to be used around the animal and how will they be enforced?
  • What disease or injury (e.g. bite) risks are present and how will they be managed?
  • Who will take care of it? This means who will take care of it for its lifespan, not just the upcoming school year.
  • Who will arrange and pay for any medical expenses that arise, either for preventive medicine or treatment of disease?
  • Will parents be notified?
  • What happens if a child in the class is allergic to or afraid of the animal?
  • Will proper supervision be available at all times?
  • Who from the school or school board must give permission, and is there a standard approval process? (There should be, but there rarely is.)
  • Why is the animal going to be there? Will there be any educational use or it is just there for fun/decoration?

If you can answer all these questions adequately, then a pet might be a good fit in the classroom in question. If you can’t answer them, or can’t be bothered to try to answer them, then there should be no pets in the classroom until you can.