Critters In The Classroom

Critters in the classroom – are risks worth rewards?

Does your child’s classroom for this new school year feature a mascot – perhaps a rabbit, guinea pig or iguana snoozing away in its cage on a sunny windowsill? Maybe it shouldn’t.

The issue of pets in schools or daycare facilities is a prickly one for vets, animal welfare advocates and physicians. Many of us may dimly remember our own grade-school classroom long ago, home to a small creature in a cage. Pets in the classroom have long been used to teach children empathy for animals, basics of husbandry, and important lessons about responsibility and patience. Sometimes anatomy class, reproduction and other aspects of biology are worked into the picture.

On the surface and in an ideal world, this seems like a fun way to bring learning to life. Unfortunately, too often there are health risks to both animals and students alike. The classroom bunny of my memories was turned over to the local animal shelter after a few months when no more volunteers could be found to take him home over the weekends. More recently, I was asked by health authorities to euthanize a class rat that had bitten a local student. Neither rat nor student benefited much from that project.

Reptiles at school are a particular concern as they invariably shed salmonella bacteria which can cause serious illness. Yes, children can either be restricted from touching the animal or instructed in proper hand-washing techniques, but this all takes planning and careful supervision. Reptiles should never be kept around children younger than five or those with compromised immune systems.

Dr. Scott Weese, an infectious disease expert at the University of Guelph offers teachers a list of guidelines to consider before introducing animals to the classroom. He warns against using baby chicks or any reptiles due to the salmonella risks and suggests picking animals that are not nocturnal or easily stressed, making hamsters a bad choice. Guinea pigs are better. In Ontario, even veterinarians can’t keep wildlife without a rehabilitation licence, so baby squirrels are out for many good reasons.

Protocols for enforcing proper hygiene and injury avoidance practices are important. Constant supervision must be ensured. What are the repercussions if a child is bitten despite precautions? Will parents be notified from the start that the class has a pet? What if a child is afraid or allergic? Who will pay for veterinary care? Who will take care of the pet on weekends, holidays and for the rest of its life after the school project ends. Guinea pigs live an average of 6 to 7 years, rabbits even longer.

Finally, as for most undertakings, the risks must not outweigh the rewards. Why is the pet going to be in the classroom? What are the learning objectives and how will they be incorporated into the curriculum? It makes no sense to take on the work, ethical dilemmas, potential expense and possible risk of injury or illness associated with keeping any pet if it is just at school for the fun factor.

Parents should know if their children are interacting with animals even at school. If your pre-schooler reports sharing snack-time with baby chicks at daycare, don’t wish for pictures, be very concerned.

Dr. Fiona Gilchrist
Hillcrest Animal Hospital – Trenton/Quinte West, Ontario
September 2013

P.S. Sometimes even well-meaning parents become the source of a problem in school, check out this article for a scarey story about a parent, a bat and schoolkids.