The Classroom Pet Debate

Why I say NO to classroom pets.

As teacher we never really turn off that part of our brain that makes us teachers. Even thought most of us are on holidays right now we are still thinking about our classrooms. I was at an antique flea market yesterday, and kept taking photos of old technology so I could incorporate those photos into my History lessons in the fall. I am super excited to show my students a rotary dial phone! 

As we start to plan our new classrooms for next year we often think "wouldn't it be cute to have a class pet?" This idea starts as a seed in our brains and then by the end of the summer after we are all rested and refreshed. We head off to the pet store to take their advice on what low maintenance pets. 

During my first two years of teaching I had fish tanks in my classrooms. I thought my students really enjoyed these visual displays of life until it become my responsibility to feed, clean and maintain the tanks. Eventually I got so discouraged with the "accidental over feedings" and lack of interest in the fish that I took them home. 

In my personal life, over the past six years I have had 2 guinea pigs, 1 rabbit, 1 dog , 1 cat and 5 fresh water fish tanks (everything from goldfish, beta fish to sharks). I may not be Jack Hanna, but I do consider myself a pretty knowledgeable person when it comes to pets. 

Why I Say NO to Class Pets

People feel that rats, fish, frogs, guinea pigs, rabbits are all small suitable classroom pets. But I strongly disagree because:
  • Classroom pets put a strain on the animal because of the constant attention they receive from the students. Would you enjoy being confined to a small space and constantly have people press their faces to your home and try to touch you?
  • Our classrooms are not quiet calm oasis'. They are loud, busy and bright work spaces. Animals need calm environments to not elevate their stress levels. Animals in these types of environments can develop a lot of unnatural nervous behaviours. Ever wonder why zoo animals bang their heads against the walls or the cage bars?
  • It is impossible for a teacher to monitor their class pets' needs 24/7 as their first priority is to their students. Will you be able to ensure the classroom temperature is appropriate for your pet? This winter my classroom was the coldest in the school averaging an internal temperature of 66 degrees Fahrenheit or 18.8 degrees Celsius. My students and I would where lots of layers and sometimes our winter coats.  
  • Class pets have a long lifespan - they go beyond the 10 months of the school year. Who will care for the pet over the weekend? on holiday breaks and summer vacation? You cannot leave a pet alone in a dark room every weekend and not every family wants the joy of bringing fluffy home. My personal guinea pig was the runt of the litter. The pet store told me she would only live a few years. She is approaching 7 years old now. As much as I love her she creates a lot of work for me. When her cage mate died, I felt so bad that I bought her a rescue bunny from my local shelter. Rabbits have a long life span and are not happy to just live in a cage. They need regular floor time and cuddle time just like any other pet. 

Creative Alternatives to Class Pets

  • Animal Sponsorship: Consider sponsoring a non traditional class pet for the year from a farm or animal sanctuary. This provides much needed support to these worthy causes and the students get to learn valuable information. Depending on the location of the sanctuary you could take a class trip and see firsthand how to care for animals. Many sanctuaries have Facebook pages, blogs and websites that as a class or individual students could look for updates on their favourite animals.  I adopted three donkeys this past year from The Donkey Sanctuary of Canada and my grade 8 students loved these unique pets. 
  • Help Out An Animal Shelter: Another teacher I know, partnered her class up with a local dog rescue and at Christmas held a treat and toy drive at their school. The students used their creativity to market this event and raised money as well as toys for the dogs. Class projects such as adopting a charity enable the students to meet curriculum expectations as they are planning and preparing an event.
  • Stuffed animals also make great class pets. The stuffy can sit on a different student's desk each day and can go on trips with a different student each weekend. If a student is going on a long holiday they can take the animal with them. Have the class create a journal/scrapbook of their alone time with stuffy. This is a great way to engage students in literacy. It is like a 3D Flat Stanley project.
  • Adopt An Endangered Animal: Take the stuffed animal one step farther and adopt an endangered species from the WorldWild Life Fund. As a class research the different species at risk available and raise the money to purchase your new friend. 
  • Go Outside: Lastly you do not need to have a class pet. Take your class outside for regular nature walks and have them observe their natural surroundings. A teacher at my school took his students down to the pond in their neighbourhood. He taught the students how to identify birds and other plants and animals by the tracks they left behind. These are transferable skills that his students will remember for years to come. 
Thanks for reading. I would love to read your thoughts in the comments below. 

9 comments

  1. My very first year of teaching, I was required to have a guinea pig as a class pet for my PreK kids. It died at 9:30 am on the first day of school. Not even kidding. Our first morning meeting topic was on death and how we should commemorate the class pet they had loved for all of an hour and a half. I then had to run the class by myself while my aide handled the, um, arrangements. THAT was my foray into the world of teaching and handling the unexpected!

    Needless to say, that predisposed me to be anti-class pets and I'm a little biased on the topic. The reasons you've given in your post are excellent. Thanks for starting this discussion. :)

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    1. Thanks for your response. This is my worst nightmare!

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  2. As a proponent of having class pets, I think it would have been interesting if you'd have included the other side of the coin too.

    I have two tarantulas, a corn snake, and a betta in my classroom. All of their tanks have heaters and lights on timers. Their habitats are all larger than the standard for these animals. I'm aware of (and grateful for) their long life spans. During the summer and winter breaks I take the animals home with me. The snake and spiders only need to eat once or twice a week, so the weekends pose no problems.

    You're right that I don't give my pets 24/7 attention. Many pets don't need/want that. My kids share the responsibility of watering and feeding them. My kiddos also water all my class plants for me. It's part of their class jobs. My kids know the rule of having the pets is that only one person per tank at a time is allowed for viewing.

    I think the key to having a class pet is to make responsible decisions about what type of animal you're bringing in, and being sure to provide them with what they need.

    -Nick
    Sweet Rhyme – Pure Reason
    Follow my blog with Bloglovin

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    1. Nick, thanks for your thoughtful response. You are certainly the exception to the rule. Thanks for taking such good care of your animals and for having great classroom rules about pet time.

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  3. Wow! A snake! That is a great idea Nick. I am not sure that I would do it myself but a pet that most students wouldn't have at home is also interesting. Kristy, your ideas for pet alternatives has a lot of interesting ideas. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  4. I have had class pets in the past, a guinea pig and frogs. It started out fun but ended up to be just as you said, more work and stress for me. Recently, I have been wrestling with the idea of trying to have a class pet again because I like the idea of studying and caring for living things. I also know that there are those students who are naturalists and respond to having a pet in the room. You make some great points so thank you for writing this post. I think we will take care of plants this year and use some of your ideas instead of pets.

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  5. I love your alternatives to class pets! I've often thought that having a class pet would be fun (I start my student teaching in August, so I'm not quite there yet). I think many reptiles would make a good choice with the correct habitat and timers etc. You'd still have to check on them over the weekend though, as heat equipment etc. can go out unexpectedly.

    As a funny aside my 6th grade science teacher had a pair of parakeets that she often had to cover with a sheet during class because they were quite frisky with each other and a whole class of giggling 6th graders is not a class that is learning much! Might want to make sure if you have a pair of animals that you get 2 of the same sex, unless you want to have an impromptu birds and bees discussion with your kids!

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    1. Katie, thanks for the great comment. Enjoy your student teaching experience. It goes by fast.

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  6. Like you, I am also a teacher and wary of having class pets. I did have 2 axolotls. They are blind so can't see all the students surrounding them. They live in water so can't be picked us and touched, thereby minimising stress. They are carnivorous which you might think is a little too scary for kids to deal with, however, the axolotls are so quick when catching the live fish I fed them, that most students never saw the axolotls eat. I only fed them once a week which also minimised any mental harm to the kids. We had great learning discussions about the cycle of life, what herbivores, omnivores and carnivores are and how they are natural in nature, that they fulfill their roles and where we fit into nature. The kids were so excited about having such an unusual pet (they were Year 1, so 6 year olds), learning about amphibians, learning about all the different aspects of taking care of another life that they have kept referring to the axolotls years later, even now that they are in Year 6 and have just left to go to high school. I love that these pets left such a lasting impression.
    - Just a quick note, if you are confused about years and high school I mentioned, it is because I am a teacher in Australia where we have a two tiered education system - primary which is kindergarten (4-5 years old) to year 6 (12 years old) and high school from years 7 (12 years old) to year 12 (18 years old)

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