Now more than ever, we are aware of the impact that certain substances in our environment can have on respiratory health. More people are being diagnosed with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory conditions requiring treatments that range from simple nasal rinses and over-the-counter medicines to more potent drugs like steroids and inhalers. As the number of individuals requiring such treatments increases, programs that place pets in classrooms have had to adapt and navigate around these conditions. The following will offer tips on accommodating potential allergy sensitive students while maintaining a successful and beneficial relationship with pets in classrooms.
Allergies occur when the immune system reacts abnormally to something normally found in the environment (an allergen). Things like pet dander, tree pollen, or dust mites are all potential allergens that can irritate the skin, sinuses, or the respiratory and digestive systems. As one of the leading chronic diseases in the United States, allergies can affect individuals regardless of race, class, age, or sex and include a range of symptoms like sneezing fits, itchy and watery eyes, swelling of the face, wheezing or shortness of breath, or even severe and life threatening conditions like anaphylactic shock.
Allergies to fur or feathers are common amongst individuals who are also prone to suffering from reactions to other substances found in their environment like dust and pollen. In fact, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, approximately 15 to 30 percent of people who commonly suffer from seasonal allergies will also have reactions to pet dander. These types of allergic reactions are actually caused by contact with the proteins found in the dead skin that pets can shed, or other materials found in their saliva, urine, or feces.
When it comes to navigating classroom pets and student allergies, there are options available to avoid potential complications. Kemba Marshall, DVM, Pet Care Expert states that, “Most human allergies to pets are due to proteins found in dander (dead flaky skin) or on pet hair. Allergies to pets look and feel like seasonal allergies (itchy/watery eyes, runny nose, sneezing) so the first thing to do is see a physician to determine what you or your child is actually allergic to. If in fact the allergy is to pets, its most certainly only triggered by pets with fur or feathers (hamsters, cats, birds). Fortunately this means that reptiles and fish are in play as potential pets. Bearded dragons, leopard geckos and fish all make great pets for appropriate aged children. Children should never be the primary care giver but can take on age appropriate pet care responsibilities.”
In classroom settings, pets become an excellent teaching tool to help promote responsibility, encourage empathy, build self-esteem, and introduce new ways to learn. Pets in the classroom enrich a classroom curriculum and can instill a sense of community in many school environments. Choosing a pet with fins or scales allows allergy sufferers to participate in the positive benefits of housing a pet in the classroom.
If a pet capable of producing dander is kept as the classroom animal, it is possible to help diminish allergic reaction triggers. To reduce airborne allergens, wipe down classroom pets with cleaning wipes daily. Not only will pets smell fresh but loose hair and dander are easily removed from the pet with wipes. It is also imperative to clean the animal’s environment weekly including all toys and any other items inside the habitat. Students should wash their hands with soap and water immediately after touching a pet or any part of the pet’s habitat. If soap and water is not immediately available, antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer should be used. Lastly, a portable HEPA filter can be used in the classroom to help remove tiny airborne particles to decrease the exposure rate for those susceptible individuals.
Before introducing any pet to your classroom, take the following steps first:
1. Get your principal’s approval before bringing the pet to school.
2. Investigate any student or staff allergies in advance.
3. Give parents the opportunity to have their children opt out of participating in activities with the pet.
4. Talk to your local pet store about what pet(s) they recommend for your particular classroom. Observing pets in store will help you decide if the pet is a good fit for your class.
Choosing the right pet for your classroom and championing good hygiene practices will help make your experience with a classroom pet positive and enriching for your students.