By Jessica Remitz
Having a classroom pet to care for, interact with, and learn more about can be a wonderful opportunity for elementary and middle school-aged children. There is no better way to observe the life cycle of an animal and gain real life experience. While it may seem like any small animal would be suitable to serve as a teaching tool, not every pint-sized pet is appropriate for the classroom. Here’s our expert-approved list for the best classroom pets.
Despite the rather scary-sounding name, Bearded Dragons are gentle by nature. They are named for the spiny skin under their throat that, when puffed up, looks like a beard. Bearded dragons are originally from the desert, so they’ll require a warm and dry habitat (Read PetSmart’s Bearded Dragon Care Guide for more info). According to the website Pets in the Classroom, they will need a few days to adjust to a new environment. Once settled in, students can take it out occasionally for handling sessions. However, like many small animals, bearded dragons are fragile in places. Always supervise students while they are handling a bearded dragon and never allow them to hold the lizard by its tail, since it can break off.
Among small mammals, guinea pigs make great classroom pets because of their minimal care requirements. And because they’re larger than hamsters or gerbils, they can be handled more easily, said Dr. Clark Fobian, DVM and president of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). While they’re easy to care for, guinea pigs do need space to run and often prefer to be in the companionship of another guinea pig of the same gender, according to the website Pets in the Classroom. They’re very social animals and require daily interaction and activity to keep from being bored. Guinea pigs also require a source of vitamin C, so it’s important to provide them with fresh food, Dr. Fobian says.
Like guinea pigs, rabbits are also able to tolerate handling by young children and have minimal care requirements, Dr. Fobian says. They’re intelligent, affectionate, and social, and require daily interaction with people or other rabbits in addition to a large enough habitat to run and exercise comfortably, according to Pets in the Classroom. To prevent boredom and encourage healthy habits, Dr. Fobian recommends making sure hay or a type of grass is included in their feed or provided to them in addition to fresh greens, vegetables, and a high grade feed.
Rabbits aren't neccessarily for every classroom, though. Some rabbits are more skittish than others and will become defensive when mishandled or overstimulated, which can end in tears for the scratched or bitten child. The House Rabbit Society, a nonprofit rabbit education and rescue organization, has a page of detailed tips and questions for teachers to consider before making the decision.
Though they may not seem like a natural choice for a classroom pet, rats are a favorite among young children for their loving and affectionate nature, Dr. Fobian says. They’re intelligent, with easier care requirements, a better smell, and less of a tendency to bite than their mouse or hamster peers, he adds. Their habitat should be glass, plastic, or metal, with a solid bottom and secure hinges to prevent any escapes, according to Pets in the Classroom. Their diet should include dry food in addition to vegetables and fruits. Broccoli, kale, grapes, and bananas are some good choices, and they should be provided chew sticks to help grind down and maintain the length of their incisor teeth, according to the website.
They aren’t as hand-on as other classroom pets may be, but keeping cold-water fish in the classroom is visually intriguing for young children and can also help teach them responsibility with feeding and water changes, Dr. Fobian says. There is also some evidence that fish are great for relieving stress and anxiety, a plus for fidgety kids. Fish are also great classroom pets because they can be incorporated into the classroom curriculum, from basic chemistry and biology principles to water quality and environmental lessons, according to the website of Dr. Scott Weese, DVM.
The care and maintenance of fish is also very straightforward and simple, an essential aspect of having a classroom pet, Dr. Fobian says. The biggest problem with any pet is their upkeep, including their diet, environment and cleaning. By keeping these requirements to a minimal, educators can simplify the care needs of their classroom pet and allow students to play a more active role in their lives.
Before bringing any pet into the classroom, teachers should make sure to do their research into the care requirements for the pet, as well as any diseases that may be transferred from the particular animal to people. According to Dr. Fobian, the animal should see a veterinarian yearly, especially before entering a classroom for the first time, to confirm there is no evidence of dental conditions, skin problems, or parasites. He adds that many clinics will check classroom pets at no charge, so educators should talk to their veterinarian about this option to help prevent any issues with their animals.
Once a pet is brought into the classroom, their eating habits, bowel movements, and overall health should be monitored to make sure there are not any issues of illness or discomfort in a classroom environment. Fobian also stresses the importance of having a plan for the animal during summers, holiday breaks, and vacations to make sure that the pet is housed in a suitable environment and cared for properly year-round.
“There are a lot of things an instructor needs to be aware of, and they need to think ahead, particularly with geriatric pets,” says Dr. Fobian. “Make sure they’re in a good environment and know they can be taken care of and come back for the following school year.”