Classroom Pets: The Humane Way

In schools across the country, there are 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.

For teachers interested in the lessons that a classroom pet can help teach, but wary of the responsibility involved, there are great alternatives.

  • a field trip to a local animal care and adoption center, or a humanely managed zoo or aquarium
  • a visit from a presenter with an animal to visit your school
  • foster an animal awaiting adoption

If you decide to acquire a permanent classroom pet, we encourage you to adopt rather than purchase an animal from a pet store.  Adoption promotes the philosophy that animals are a lifelong commitment, rather than a disposable commodity.  For guidelines on the life expectancies of classroom pets, see the list below.

Guinea pigs – 5 to 7 years

Ferrets – 10 to 12 years

Gerbils – 2 to 4 years

Domestic Rats – 2 to 3 years

Domestic Mice – 1 to 3 years

Fish – 5 to 10 years (goldfish)

Considerations to Make in Advance

Before acquiring a classroom pet, the educator should investigate whether any student is:

  • allergic or sensitive to any particular species or their food or bedding materials
  • immune compromised, and therefore more susceptible to zoological illnesses

Educators should provide parents and guardians with information about the classroom pet, the purpose of acquiring the animal (how its care will fit into the curriculum), and a plan for how any injuries (bites, scratches) will be managed should they arise.

Care & Housing of Classroom Pets

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.

Responsible Caregiving

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.

Sample Classroom Pet Policy for Schools

Considerations to make in advance:

Before acquiring a classroom pet, the educator will investigate whether any student is:

  • allergic or sensitive to any particular species or their food or bedding materials
  • immune compromised, and therefore more susceptible to zoological illnesses

Educators will provide parents and guardians with information about the classroom pet, the purpose of acquiring the animal (how its care will fit into the curriculum), and a plan for how any injuries (bites, scratches) will be managed should they arise.

Type of pet:

  • only domestic animals may be kept as pets
  • wild animals may not be kept as pets (this includes locally caught frogs, snakes, etc.)
  • animal must be diurnal (awake during the day)
  • whenever possible, the pet should be acquired through an adoption center, rescue, or other re-homing opportunity

Responsibilities:

The primary educator in the classroom is considered the animal’s guardian/caregiver, and is responsible for ensuring that all of the animal’s physical and psychological needs are met.

The animal’s guardian is responsible for:

  • researching the animal’s species and consulting reliable sources (veterinarian, humane educator) regarding appropriate diet, housing, exercise, and socialization
  • ensuring that the animal is fed appropriately, handled properly, and that its habitat is cleaned regularly; using logs to track feedings and cleanings is recommended
  • seeking regular and emergency veterinary care for the animal (including vaccinations required by state law), and is responsible for all veterinary fees
  • taking the animal home during weekends, holidays, and vacations
  • continuing to care for the animal at home in the event that a future student is allergic and the animal is unable to live in the classroom

Other criteria:

  • classroom pets are not permitted to breed; if several animals of the same species are being maintained as classroom pets, males and females should be kept separate at all times
  • students will only handle the animal under direct supervision of an adult
  • if students are given responsibilities for feeding the animal or cleaning the animal’s habitat, this will be assigned as a reward not as a punishment, and students will be supervised during all interactions
  • students must wash their hands prior to and after handling the classroom pet or cleaning its habitat
  • animals will be housed in a quiet area of the classroom away from windows, direct sunlight, heating vents, and drafts
  • the heat in the classroom will be kept within an acceptable range during the nighttime

Appropriate species:

  • Guinea Pigs—can be well socialized when handled appropriately and regularly; need room for exercise and ample housing
  • Ferrets—are generally very social animals; need very large cage space and plenty of supervised time out of the cage for exercise, so more appropriate for upper elementary levels; ferrets are required by law to be rabies vaccinated
  • Gerbils—sociable and curious; may be difficult for children to handle because of their small size, but they are fun to observe
  • Domestic Rats—sociable if handled regularly; very intelligent
  • Domestic Mice—sociable; may be difficult for children to handle because of their small size, but they are fun to observe
  • Fish—a good choice if a robust species; not generally interactive, but fun to observe

Inappropriate species:

  • Red-Eared Slider Turtles—reptiles require very consistent tank heating; their lifespan is over 30 years
  • Anoles (American chameleons)—amphibians require consistent tank heating; require very delicate handling
  • Hamsters—nocturnal (sleep through the day and awake at night), more likely to bite
  • Rabbits—most are relatively large and need a good amount of cage space and room to exercise; are naturally skittish and difficult to pick up; require a calm environment
  • Chinchillas—most need a good amount of cage space and room to exercise; they are naturally very curious and prefer exploration to being held and sitting calmly in one’s lap; they are more prone to illness due to fluctuations in temperature and humidity, which can be difficult to control in a classroom