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The Controversial Classroom Pet Debate

Classroom pets seem like a great idea in theory, but they are not always the best choice. Read about 5 great alternatives to classroom pets.

 

Classroom pets. As teachers, we never really turn off that part of our brain that makes us teachers. Even though most of us might be on holiday 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!

But 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, we are all rested and refreshed. We then head off to the pet store and take their advice on low-maintenance pets.

I had fish tanks in my classrooms during my first two years of teaching. I thought my students enjoyed these visual displays of life until it became my responsibility to feed, clean, and maintain the tanks. Eventually, I got so discouraged with the “accidental overfeedings” and lack of interest in the fish that I took them home.

In my personal life, over the past six years, I have had:
  • Two guinea pigs
  • One rabbit
  • One dog
  • One cat
  • Five freshwater fish tanks with everything from goldfish and beta fish to sharks

I may not be Jack Hanna, but I consider myself a pretty knowledgeable person regarding pets.

Why I Say NO To Classroom Pets

People feel that rats, fish, frogs, guinea pigs, and rabbits are small, suitable classroom pets. But I strongly disagree because:

  • Classroom pets strain the animals because of the constant attention they receive from the students. Would you enjoy being confined to a small space and constantly having people press their faces to your home and try to touch you?
  • Our classrooms are not quiet, calm oases. They are loud, busy, and bright workspaces. Animals need calm environments not to elevate their stress levels. Animals in these types of environments can develop many unnatural nervous behaviours. Why do zoo animals bang their heads against the walls or the cage bars?
  • Teachers can’t monitor their class pets’ needs 24/7 as their first priority is their students. Can you ensure the classroom temperature is appropriate for your classroom pet? This winter, my classroom was the coldest in the school, averaging an internal temperature of 66 degrees Fahrenheit (18.8 degrees Celcius). My students and I wore many layers and sometimes our winter coats.
  • Classroom pets have a LONG lifespan – they go well beyond the ten months of the school year. Who will care for the pet over the weekend? Or on holiday breaks and summer vacations? You cannot leave a pet alone in a dark room every weekend; not every family wants the joy of bringing them home. My guinea pig was the runt of the litter. The pet store told me she would only live a few years. She is approaching seven 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 unhappy living in a cage. They need regular floor and cuddle time like any other pet.

Creative Alternatives to Classroom Pets

  • Animal Sponsorship: Consider sponsoring a non-traditional classroom pet from a farm or animal sanctuary for the year. This supports these worthy causes, and the students learn valuable information. Depending on the sanctuary’s location, you could take a class trip and learn how to care for animals. Many sanctuaries have Facebook pages, blogs, and websites that a class or individual students could look at for updates on their favourite animals. Once, I adopted three donkeys 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 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 and toys for the dogs. Class projects, such as adopting a charity, enable the students to meet curriculum expectations while planning and preparing an event.
  • Stuffed Animals: These also make great classroom pets. The stuffy can sit on a different student’s desk daily and go on trips with a different student each weekend. If students go on a long holiday, they can take the animal with them. Have the class create a journal/scrapbook of their time with the 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 further and adopt an endangered species from the World Wildlife 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 a classroom pet. Take your class outside for regular nature walks and have them observe the 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, other plants, and animals by the tracks they left behind. They are transferable skills that his students will remember for years to come.

I hope this post has given you insight into the classroom pet debate. Having a classroom pet isn’t for everyone, and if you’re like me, I hope this helps you reconsider your class pet ideas for your students.

Do your students love animals? They might love some of these activities: 

Japan’s Cat Islands, the Pet-Themed Digital Escape Room, and the Dog DNA Tests Media Literacy Lesson are all FREE when you sign up for the 2 Peas and a Dog email list. Once you sign up, your resource will be sent to your inbox.

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0 thoughts on “The Controversial Classroom Pet Debate”

  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. 🙂

  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
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  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  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!

  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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