In the past, entering the health science classroom might have been a typical experience, with only the usual posters and projects lining the walls as decoration. However, a new furry friend recently joined the ranks of both people and mice, and is fondly referred to as either Gandalf or Kip.

The new class pet has sparked discussion within the student body. Whether the pet is a teacher’s or a student’s hasn’t always counted as a large issue, but sometimes the owner can make a difference in terms of keeping the animal safe. The idea of looking out for a pet’s well-being resounds with some of the student body, and opinions on the subject of bringing animals to school differ greatly.

“I decided to get a class pet because it was something the students had talked about, and in the hospital they use a lot of pet therapy, with dogs, and so I thought, what a great way to introduce that here in class,” Jessica Chambers, Health Science teacher and HOSA sponsor, said. “I know a lot of my students work really hard, and it’s hard to be in class all day, so I thought having a pet would kind of help just ease their anxiety and stress levels.”

Students also attest to the relief a class pet can bring after a stressful day at school. While many can get that same sense of comfort from their own animals during after school hours, having an animal in class can help calm anxiety levels while they’re still in school. This can give someone that extra push to get through the rest of their day.

“It provides support and comfort,” sophomore Lilly Fletcher, Health Science Theory (HST) student, said. “The class pet lives there, and everyone knows this is where it lives, and it has its own house, and it’s safe.”

The question of an animal’s safety plays a part in students’ ideas about pets at school. When an animal has its own living environment in a classroom, it’s guaranteed a safe space to reside, whereas a pet brought in by a student has a higher likelihood of being mishandled or frightened by more people than its used to.

“I think [school] can be stressful for a pet, especially a cat or a dog,” sophomore Kasey Gusella said. “That environment shouldn’t be exposed to them because it’s loud in the halls, and just a different environment that is too much for them.”

This proved true last school year when a student brought newborn kittens to school and they passed away on campus. Though this was a not a desirable outcome, the situation turned into a learning experience for some.

“We thought they were just kind of like a zoo exhibit that we could look at and then go on with our learning,” sophomore Caroline Sprague said. “It really made me realize that they’re actual pets that need to be cared for just as much as house pets.”

That incident isn’t one that students plan to repeat. Due to most class pets and other animals being either older or more safely contained, students have the chance to take care of them better and respect the animals’ space.

“You want kids to treat [the pet] with respect and handle it properly, but there is still the possibility that there are some kids that don’t really know how to handle a pet,” sophomore Eliana Glenn, HST student, said. “It could be stressful and overwhelming to the pet, but they also get more attention than they would if they were just alone at a house, so I feel like it could have both positive and negative impacts.”

The keeping of class pets is carefully maintained and regulated, but bringing pets to school or from home counts as a concern for some students. The specific issues animals can cause with certain students, such as allergic reactions, can outrank the mental benefits of having a pet at school and can cause repercussions.

“I think maybe animals like cats and dogs shouldn’t be brought to school just because of allergies, and maybe people having fears,” Gusella said. “Maybe stick with smaller animals, like a fish or a hamster.”

Studies have shown that these types of smaller animals have made a positive impact on the environment of a classroom. In a 2015 survey for the Pet Care Trust’s “Pets in the Classroom” initiative, around 1,200 teachers attested to the fact that children who go through school with a pet in tow have learned values of compassion, responsibility, and leadership, and have experienced a decrease in stress levels. According to the data collected, the most commonly adopted class pets were fish with guinea pigs in second and hamsters in third. Teachers reported that the pets were also useful in enhancing lessons and opening students up to new experiences.

“We had high hopes that the program would have a positive impact on children in schools throughout North America,” Steve King, Pet Care Trust executive director, said. “The study results confirm what we have been hearing from teachers since day one – classroom pets do make a difference.”

On the other hand, recent information has developed concerning the impact of larger animals, like therapy dogs, being shown around campuses. The Alliance of Therapy Dogs is one of the largest therapy dog     organizations in America, and a large focus of their centers around how dogs in classrooms can help alleviate stress. An earlier study found that around 8-10 percent of teens have an anxiety disorder, and the Alliance affirms that therapy dogs can help lift moods or even act as a source of friendship for students. Therapy dogs have also been introduced to college students and were brought into a Yale library in order to help students adjust to their new university lifestyle and to cope with their anxieties.

The effects of students on animals and vice versa are debated regularly with the opinions of students varying greatly. Though there are arguments against bringing your own pets to school, positive thoughts on the issue also exist, making both students and teachers more inclined to bringing their animals to school.

“[Class pets] really add a sense of liveliness to the classroom, especially on the days when we just read or do individual projects,” Sprague said. “It adds a sense of whimsy to the classroom and just makes students a lot more keen about learning and experiencing new things.”

Written by Katie Haberman