Classroom Pets

"Kids are so fascinated by animals," said Dinh Tran, a first grade teacher at Ynez Elementary in the Monterey Park area of Los Angeles, who has had guinea pigs in her classroom for two years. "That's why it's important to have them in your classroom. But you must take safety precautions."

"I had a close call," Tran admitted. The first year she was teaching, Tran took the advice of local pet store owners and bought two rats for her classroom. "They told me rats were very friendly, very intelligent, and very good with kids," Tran said. All this is true, of course, but the store owners didn't mention that the rats' gregarious nature often makes them too aggressive to be good classroom pets for younger children, especially those not comfortable with handling such a quick and strong animal.

Tran's close call came the day when a rat scratched one of her first grade students who had carelessly poked his hand in the cage. "It wasn't much of a scratch – not more than a papercut – but it was enough. I didn't want any trouble, so I gave them away."

The next year, Tran wanted to try having animals in her classroom again. She chose a different species – this time, a pair of guinea pigs – on the recommendation of a fellow teacher. Her classroom policy now dictates that designated "pet monitors" can touch the guinea pigs or feed them their daily chow and hay, but they must do so only with supervision. She doesn't let her students pick up the guinea pigs.

"Guinea pigs are very shy animals," Tran said. "But they're very cute, and the kids just like looking at them!"

Is it Right for this Classroom?

Tran's story is illustrative of several of the most important points that teachers must consider before they choose to bring an animal into their classroom. Safety, age appropriateness, class involvement, and the teacher's willingness to provide proper care for the animal must be considered. Every classroom situation is different.

Often teachers hope to teach children responsibility by having them help care for a classroom animal. It's true that a child might learn some sort of basic discipline by cleaning an animal's cage on a specific schedule. But that lesson in responsibility could just as easily be taught by maintaining and watering a garden regularly. It's best not to involve a live animal in a classroom unless you have specific curriculum in mind that require the animal's everyday presence. Otherwise teachers are better off planning field trips to local wild animal parks or arranging for periodic classroom visits for interesting creatures.

The ultimate responsibility for the classroom pet's quality of life falls on the shoulders of the teacher who brings the animal to the schoolroom. This burden may be too much for a teacher struggling to maintain order in an already unruly classroom. But if you've brought an animal into your class, it's up to you to make sure that the animal remains healthy and doesn't show any signs of stress.

Best and Worst

Tran made a good choice with her guinea pigs. They top the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals' list of "Best Bets for Classroom Pets." Guinea pigs are quiet and docile animals and if their cages are kept clean, they have very little odor. Their needs are basic: hay and fresh veggies, clean water, an outside source of Vitamin C (available as a supplement or in special guinea pig-formulated feed pellets), and a cardboard box or other small enclosure to hide in during the day. Guinea pigs are active in the day, so you don't have to worry about disturbing their sleep cycles, as you might if you kept a hamster or mice in the classroom.

Other good classroom pets include gerbils and hamsters for the same reasons: they are relatively easy to care for and keep happy. Birds and rabbits do not make good classroom pets. Birds may be noisy and they're very sensitive to drafts. Many children are allergic to bird dander, and an escaped bird can be a classroom nightmare. And don't be fooled by the fuzzy, docile look of the bunny. Rabbits have very strong back legs that they can use to kick or scratch if they're mishandled. Some don't enjoy being picked up and handled by children. They require a large pen and can make a lot of noise moving around in their cages during the day. Reptiles require a constant source of heat and many need to eat live food – flies, mealworms, or crickets – or pre-killed mice so they may not be a good choice for younger grade levels or for the squeamish.

Whatever your choice, be sure you research a potential classroom animal before you buy him. The internet and local pet stores are good places to find information, but be sure to talk to other teachers who have experience with classroom pets to find out which ones they recommend. Always let your school principal know that you are bringing an animal into your classroom.