Pets in the classroom can add value to the educational environment. They stimulate learning, teach responsibility, encourage nurturing, build self-esteem, develop compassion, and promote the human animal bond. All are valuable assets for children long after they graduate.
Animals can broaden children’s views because they learn about different animals eat, where they come from, how big they grow and what it takes to properly take care of them, providing lessons in science, geography and math. Kids will come to school with a new enthusiasm for learning, and studies have shown class pets improve attendance and engagement.
Considerations for Pet Selection
Of course these typical classroom pets can make great family pets. Cats and dogs are may be a bit daunting for novice pet parents. “Pocket Pets” can give adults and children good practical experience into the responsibilities of pet parenthood.
Below is a list of popular animals you might find as pets in a classroom along with fun facts about them and their care:
- Guinea Pigs – are very social animals and will be happiest living with other guinea pigs. They need a lot of floor space, and most cages labeled “guinea pig cages” are much too small, especially for a pair (or more).
- Rabbits – Overfeeding pellets in mature rabbits can lead to obesity and other medical conditions.
- Turtle – Aquatic turtles have to be in water to eat.
- Tarantula – Unlike most spiders, a tarantula doesn’t use a web to catch its prey. However, it may spin a trip wire to signal an alert when something approaches its burrow.
- Hermit Crab – They prefer the company of other hermit crabs.
- Hedgehog – they are solitary animals so they do very well as a singleton.
Care & Habitat
Careful consideration should be made when deciding on the location for the pets habitat within the classroom. Enclosures must be well ventilated and provide protection against temperature extremes as well as light. Glass enclosures, can overheat easily, must not be directly exposed to sunlight. Wire cages, have great ventilation however are subject to drafts and should not be near windows or HVAC vents or other A/C/Heating units.
Wire cages should also be checked for any protruding wires that could injure the animal or a child. Habitat maintenance must be taken care regularly for the safety of pets and children.
Cages and tanks need to be cleaned often. We like to live in a clean house, and so do they. Habitat cleanliness is important factor for a healthy pet. Bedding should be cleaned frequently. Wash food and water dishes daily. Keep litter box scooped clean. Dump old litter and replace with new litter weekly. Replace the litter box annually.
Housing must allow each animal enough room to move around and to escape the attention of students and of other animals. It must be secure enough to prevent the animals’ escape.
Specialized Nutrients are Key
Every pet will have very specific needs nutritional requirements. Speak with your veterinarian about necessities for your particular pet. I’ve included a few examples below:
- Guinea pigs are strict herbivores. They are often fed lettuce, cabbage, and various types of grasses and fruit. In some cases, barley and “Timothy hay”, a wide-spread perennial grass, are grown especially for consumption by domesticated mammalian herbivores such as guinea pigs. Commercially manufactured feed pellets are also good to guinea pig’s diet because they contain many of the vitamins and minerals.
- Insects are the preferred diet for a hedgehog. They may be fed canned or dry dog or cat food, mealworms, snails, cottage cheese, pine nuts, and shrimp, which serve as a good fiber source.
- Pellets are most important in the younger stages of rabbit development because they are highly concentrated in nutrients. Rabbits should have fresh hay available 24 hours a day. Vegetables provide valuable roughage, as well as essential vitamins new varieties, including both dark leafy vegetables and root vegetables, and serve vegetables of different.
A healthy pet is a happy pet. Before selecting a pet consult a veterinarian to help figure out which pets are best for the classroom. They can also outline specific medical and dietary needs, including other care requirements to help the classroom pet be as healthy and happy as possible. A veterinarian can provide specific answers to proper handling, nutrition and habitat for the pet to ensure they live a full, healthy life.
Animal brains (like humans) develop better when they are challenged, tested, given problems to solve and opportunities to be creative. Environmental enrichment improves the quality of captive environments so animals have greater choices of activity and some control over their environment.
This aims to improve animals’ physical and psychological wellbeing. Enrichment should provide opportunities for normal behaviors. Rabbits are active, intelligent, social and inquisitive. Bored rabbits with not enough to do may suffer. As domestic rabbits are often confined for much of the time, they need to have some control over their environment and make choices about what they do. Other caged pets need enrichment for similar reasons.
Enrichment for Pets in the Classroom:
- Rats like to burrow in strips of paper or fabric; hamsters like to dig into their habitats and gerbils enjoy many types of toys, from cage furniture to running wheels, to fully engage in their species-specific behaviors
- Shared housing environment is good for rats, mice, gerbils, and guinea pigs. Caution should be used with male mice and female hamsters since they can become aggressive and fight.
- Two-storied habitats provide additional space and a location to hide under the ramp
- Rotate toys to keep things fresh. Re-arrange items and hide treats. Provide different size boxes and brown paper bags to explore.
- Hide food in unusual places or within other food.
- Many rodents enjoy nest boxes (cardboard boxes with an entrance cut out) and tunnels (paper towel tubes work well).
- Heat source for reptiles.
- Exercise equipment and toys designed to enrich the cage environment should also be made available.
There are challenges for animals kept in captivity. Enrichments make animals days more interesting, stimulating, and fun! All enrichment activities must be appropriate to the species and size of the animal. Speak with your veterinarian for species specific ideas.
Continuity of Care
Maintaining continuity of care is important for classroom pets. Teachers are the pet’s primary caregiver, and are best qualified to meet its needs during breaks such as weekends, holidays, and vacations. Changes in care and environment can severely stress some animals.
During school breaks, when heat and air conditioning may be reduced, consider the temperature requirements of any animals you cannot take home with you. Teachers should ask to be notified in the event of any air conditioning or heat loss emergencies, and advise the fire department of the location of live animals in the building in advance of any fire emergencies.
Identify an alternate caregiver who is willing to provide temporary care during illness or if inclement weather forces a school closing. Lesson plans for substitute teachers should have this caregiver information included.
detailed written instructions on all aspects of care should be given to alternative caregiver.
Safety for Pets and People
Teaching children proper husbandry is critical not only for the health and wellbeing of classroom pets but also for children and others who come into contact with them. Children must be taught how to pick-up, hold, and touch their classroom pet. Proper handling techniques will minimize the risk of injury (to pet or child) and escape from habitat.
Children also need to know when to leave the pet alone, to rest, eat or play, ect. Classroom pets can be subjected to stressful situations, noise, or improper handling so it is imperative that teachers (reinforced by parents) educate students on the do’s and don’ts for HoneyBunny’s happiness.
Only students mature enough to handle the animal appropriately should be allowed this privilege, and should always be carefully supervised. Most classroom pets that bite do so because human hands have become associated with unpleasant experiences. No stressful or harmful procedures should ever be allowed on a classroom pet.
Human Health Considerations
Institute guidelines to keep both students and pets safe from potential disease transmission.
- Wash hands after any contact with animals, animal products or animal environments.
- Supervise children when handling animals.
- View animals in cages or under appropriate restraint
- Designate special areas for animal contact
- Do not allow food or drink in animal contact areas
- Do not allow animals where food and drink will be prepared
Animals in the classroom can contribute greatly to the learning experience for students. Precautions should be taken to minimize the risk for injury or illness to students and ensure the pet’s health. The opportunity to interact and care for pets is an experience children will carry with them, and it may inspire them to get a pet later in life.
Happy Pet Parenting,
Resources for Teachers and Parents
Finding a Veterinarian
Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians (AEMV). We are an association of veterinary professionals dedicated to advancing the care of ferrets, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters, rats, mice, chinchillas, hedgehogs, and other exotic companion mammals.
The Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians (ARAV) is a professional organization promoting conservation and humane treatment of all reptilian and amphibian species through education, captive breeding, and habitat preservation.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Center for Injury Prevention and Control
Guidelines for Animals in School Settings
The Pet Care Trust