In schools across the country, one can find examples of classroom pets that are acquired for the wrong reasons or lacking in basic care. There is a correct way to care for a classroom pet, and that starts with a lesson about responsible care and the commitment to animal guardianship. This lesson should include information about companion animal overpopulation and the many things students can do to make their communities a better, safer place for domestic and wild animals.
For teachers interested in the lessons that a classroom pet can help teach, but wary of the responsibility involved, there are great alternatives. Planning a field trip to a local animal care and adoption center, or a humanely managed zoo or aquarium is a great option. Sometimes these organizations are able to send a presenter with an animal to visit your school. Another creative alternative to the traditional classroom pet is to foster an animal awaiting adoption. This shorter-term commitment may be a more realistic option for teachers, while still providing the same learning opportunities.
Housing, Feeding, and Handling
Regular maintenance includes keeping cages and tanks clean and providing fresh food and drinking water. 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. Give careful thought to the location of the animals in the classroom. Enclosures must be well ventilated and provide protection against extremes of heat and light. Glass enclosures, which can overheat easily, should be located away from direct sunlight. Wire cages, which are subject to drafts, should be located away from windows and heating and air conditioning units. Wire cages should also be checked for any protruding wires that could injure the animal or a child.
Appropriate food, bedding, and gnawing material (for rodents) must be provided. Many rodents enjoy nest boxes (cardboard boxes with an entrance cut out) and tunnels (paper towel tubes work well). Exercise equipment and toys designed to enrich the cage environment should also be made available.
Periodic handling is good for some species, but students should be taught how to pick up, hold, and touch their classroom pet to minimize the risk of escape or injury. Only those students mature enough to handle the animal appropriately should be allowed this privilege, and they 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.
As teacher, you are the classroom pet's primary caregiver, and so are best qualified to meet its needs over weekends, holidays, and vacations. Changes in its care and environment can severely stress some animals, and their safety can be jeopardized if, when sent home with students, they receive untrained handling or are exposed to other pets or young children in the student's household. If you decide to entrust the temporary care of a classroom pet to a student and his or her family, provide detailed written instructions regarding safe transportation, feeding, and handling.
During school breaks, when heat and air conditioning may be reduced, consider the temperature requirements of any animals you cannot take home with you. Ask to be notified in the event of any 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 (another teacher or member of the staff, a mature student, or your local animal control officer) who is willing to provide temporary care if you are unavailable or if inclement weather forces a school closing. Identify this caregiver on your lesson plans for substitute teachers.
Health and Veterinary Care
If more than one animal is kept in the same cage, they should be behaviorally compatible and of the same sex. Female mammals often do better in group housing situations than males do because they may be less territorial and less likely to fight, causing injuries. It is always best to seek advice on this issue before creating a situation you will later regret. Breeding small mammals such as mice or rats is not recommended because populations of these and other domestic animals are already abundant. Mealworms, crickets, and fruit flies make great subjects for lessons in reproduction.
Regular, preventative veterinary care should be provided for all animals kept in the classroom. This is not only important for the animals; it also sends a good message to your students about the importance of routine medical care. Before you acquire a classroom pet, be sure there is a veterinarian in your area who is knowledgeable about the care of that particular species. If euthanasia becomes necessary, it should be performed only by a veterinarian or by a trained technician.