Sadie Holloway writes about enjoying the good life while living on a modest income. She loves finding creative ways to save money.
Caring for Animals in the Classroom Can Help Build Empathy
Keeping small domesticated animals in a school classroom can teach young children how to properly care for a pet. Teaching responsible pet guardianship as part of the school curriculum can promote a better understanding of animal welfare issues and may spark students' interest in becoming animal advocates or studying to be veterinarians. Learning about the biological and physiological needs of an animal can foster environmental awareness, compassion, and positive social interactions.
There are some important rules that should be followed to ensure that any animal brought into a classroom is properly cared for and never put in harm's way. 
1. The animal should not be permitted to breed. Responsible population control measures should be taught to students so that they understand the harmful consequences of overbreeding.
2. The classroom teacher should be the animal’s sole guardian. The teacher and, when necessary, a second adult caregiver must take full responsibility for the health and welfare of the animal. This includes caring for the pet over the weekend, holidays, and during school breaks. Sending a classroom pet home with a student for the weekend or holidays is not advisable as it can be confusing and chaotic for the pet. As well, not every student has the skills or home environment to safely look after a small animal.
3. The animal is part of the learning environment. The animal should be used as one of several ways to teach school children about humane animal care and responsible guardianship. In other words, the pet should not be introduced to the classroom as entertainment. Students need to know that pets, while they need some human interaction and playtime, are not toys for their amusement.
4. Any animal introduced into a classroom setting should not be nocturnal. The animal should have a natural sleep schedule that is compatible with the daytime school schedule.
5. Teachers must thoroughly research the animal’s nutritional, social, and environmental needs prior to acquiring the pet. Teachers, as sole guardians of the pet, must be able to pay for all the pet’s needs, whether that means the expenses come out of pocket or the school has agreed to cover the pet care costs. The animal must have access to regular and emergency veterinary care.
6. All classroom pets should be handled according to species-specific handling instructions. Teacher supervision is required any time students handle the classroom animal. Animals should only be handled if doing so:
- does not cause the animal stress or anxiety
- does not endanger the pet’s or students' health and safety. An agitated animal should not be handled as it may bite or harm a student
- is directly related to the curriculum being taught; and
- is supervised by an experienced teacher or adult.
Many animal welfare agencies have conditions that they expect to be met by any teacher and classroom that keeps a pet. Contact your local humane society for more information on their beliefs and values around animals in the classroom.
Source: BC SPCA
Which Animals Can Be Class Pets?
Some small animals are suitable for a classroom environment while others should never be kept as classroom pets.
Wild animals such as indigenous snakes, lizards, turtles, or any other animal caught in the wild should never be kept as classroom pets. These animals may bite or snap at people and there is no guarantee that animals caught in the wild aren't carrying diseases or parasites that can harm people. As well, it will be hard to take care of the health and feeding needs of a wild animal. How many pet food supply stores would be able to advise on and sell food suitable for a wild species. Leave wild animals where they belong: outside.
Teachers should be prepared to do diligent research and planning ahead of time if they want to add a small caged animal to the classroom. If a teacher wants to bring an animal into the classroom as part of the educational curriculum, it must be a domesticated animal whose health needs can be addressed by a qualified veterinarian. Still, even among domesticated animals, some animals are better suited to a classroom environment than others.
Keep in mind that just because an animal falls under the category of house pet, that doesn't mean it is suitable as a classroom pet. For a summary of the different characteristics and care needs of various small animals and whether each animal is suited to the classroom, the BC SPCA has a helpful list to guide the decision-making process.
Is a fish tank or aquarium suitable for a school classroom?
A tropical fish aquarium with fish such as guppies, goldfish, and tetras may be appropriate in a classroom environment provided a responsible adult (i.e., the teacher) takes primary responsibility for the cleaning and maintenance of the fish habitat.
If school children are involved in the care and feeding of the fish, they must be closely supervised to avoid overfeeding, which can upset the delicate pH balance of the aquarium's water. Aquariums should be kept in a safe, secure part of the classroom where they can't be accidentally knocked over or damaged.
The relatively short life span of most tropical fish should also be taken into consideration when deciding on whether or not to add an aquarium to a school classroom. Depending on the age of the students, the death of a fish may be upsetting for young children.
There are other things that a teacher should consider before bringing a pet into the classroom.
- Are there any children who could have allergies or other health conditions that would be compromised by the animal’s presence?
- Are there any children with parents who may strongly object to the presence of a classroom pet, and how will this affect the other students?
- Does the teacher have permission from their supervisor to have a classroom animal? Who would be liable for damages if an animal injured a student? (i.e.; bites, scratches, infection or severe adverse reaction.) Will insurance cover any damage or injuries caused by the pet (or the pet’s environment)?
- How will the teacher ensure good hygiene is practiced before, during, and after a pet is handled?
If, after careful consideration and research, it turns out that having a small animal in the classroom is not appropriate, there are many other ways that teachers can still give their students enriching educational experiences. Field trips, classroom visits by animal advocates and the animals they care for, and in-class workshops on responsible pet care can enhance students' awareness and understanding of the positive effects of mutually beneficial relationships with domesticated animals.
For more detailed information on pets that may or may not be suitable for a classroom environment, contact your local SPCA or Humane Society. They may have guidelines and recommendations for keeping small animals in a school classroom.
© 2014 Sadie Holloway
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on April 03, 2014:
Thanks for sharing the excellent advice about choosing and caring for a classroom pet. Having a pet in the school can be a wonderful learning experience for students, but as you say there are important points to consider before getting the pet.