A “class pet” has been a popular idea in the USA for some years, and it is increasingly catching on in Ireland. Andrea is a teacher at St Andrew’s National School in Bray, and when she went into the pet shop to choose an animal for her Sixth class pupils, she expected to come out with a gerbil or a hamster.
The staff in the pet shop introduced her to a baby rat, a creature that had not been considered. They explained that rats are adaptable, friendly animals, who enjoy attention more than many other small pets. Andrea met the mother and father of the baby rat, and she was impressed at how relaxed they were. After some more research at home, she reached the conclusion that, contrary to the popular perception, a rat would be the ideal class pet. She collected the young rat, now christened Spook, and brought him into her classroom.
Andrea was very careful about introducing him to the children. She kept the cage covered by a large drape, while she talked to the children about the principles of having a pet. She did up a pet contract with them: an agreement that they would work together to make sure that he was fed, watered and given attention every day. She then took Spook out, and let him run around so that they could all see him from a safe distance. He was still small at that stage, and none of the children realised that he was a rat. When she told them, later in the day, the children had already fallen for him and nobody felt ill-at-ease about his true identity.
Spook has settled in well to the classroom environment. He has a big multi-storey cage, and he is allowed out under supervision for short, supervised walks. He has played an important role in teaching the children about the need to care for animals, and about responsibility. He has only been involved in one mishap so far: Andrea remembered when she returned home that she had forgotten to securely close one of the doors in his cage. She phoned the school to warn them and another teacher found him running around the classroom floor. A small army of teachers and cleaning staff was needed to corner him and put him back into his cage.
Spook lived in the classroom during the week, but he went home with the children at the weekends. Andrea sent a letter to the children’s parents first, and nearly all were very happy to take their turn with weekend care. Andrea took the final responsibility for him, looking after him over holidays, and bringing him to the vet if he was ill.
When he started itching, and his coat began to look ragged and greasy, Andrea brought him to see me. His skin was red, and when I tickled his back, he moved his back leg to scratch himself, in the same was as an itchy dog. I took samples to check for parasites, but found none. It seemed most likely that he had suffered an allergic reaction to a new type of bedding, and this was being complicated by a bacterial infection. He was given treatment with antibiotics, and a special anti-bacterial shampoo. Andrea and the children found it difficult to bathe him – he didn’t enjoy it – but when I checked him two weeks later, he’d made a full recovery.
- Rats make great pets for children, despite their bad public image
- Adults need to take responsibility for all children’s pets
- Itchy skin in rats can be caused by a reaction to cage contents or bedding