Hamsters and gerbils make a fantastic addition to any classroom. They’re cheap, low-maintenance and don’t cause too much disturbance in lessons, not to mention the fact that they look so cute running around in their little exercise wheels.
Many classrooms benefit from adopting a school rodent as they teach the children the basic responsibilities of caring for another living creature. They’re engaging and fun and many teachers use them as a tool for motivating pupils. For those children who have no pets, having the school hamster/gerbil stay over the weekend can be a valuable learning experience.
If the class pet is making an appearance at your home this semester, here is a fool-proof guide to looking after your school pet.
Gerbils and hamsters are the most common type of classroom pet, but small and furry does not equal the same in terms of treatment. Here’s the lowdown between the two:
Hamsters have five common species, but Syrians are the most popular. Syrian hamsters are solitary creatures from around the age of 10 weeks old. They have to be housed alone as they will fight to the death if another hamster is put in their cage. Hamsters are nocturnal creatures doing most of their running around at night. Hamsters tend to be more fearful of humans than gerbils, they don’t like to be woken up to play during the day and may bite, so be warned.
Gerbils are more sociable as they live in groups in the wild. They’re also friendlier with humans and don’t sleep during the day. Gerbils also look more mouse-like; they have long tails and like to stand up on their hind legs. Both gerbils and hamsters live for approximately two years.
Where do I keep it?
Place the cage in a quiet room you can visit frequently throughout the day. Make sure the cage isn’t put by drafts, radiators or in direct sunlight, as small rodents are sensitive to heatstroke.
Keep the cage off the ground and make sure you put it in a room that can’t be accessed by cats and dogs. Even if you think your pet may be ok around them, larger animals will likely terrify the hamster or gerbil. It is also worth noting that putting a hamster cage in your child’s bedroom at night may keep them awake, as hamsters are nocturnal.
What do I feed it?
Hopefully your school would have provided you with the hamster’s food for the weekend. If not, it is best to go to your local pet shop and buy commercially prepared dry mix food. Hamsters and gerbils eat other foods like non-citrus fruit or veg and sometimes cheese and fish for protein. But as you are only looking after the pet for a short time, it’s best not to feed it anything that isn’t on its pre-approved meal plan.
Half fill the bowl with food (a tablespoon should do it), so the hamster has room to rummage around for the things it wants and don’t worry if the bowl contents disappears quickly, the hamster may be storing bits around its cage for later.
Can I play with it?
Hamsters don’t particularly enjoy being handled for very long, but in the moments that they’re not sleeping or eating you can play with them. Bear in mind taming a hamster is a lengthy process that takes patience and lots of bitten fingers. Find out if your child’s beloved school pet is a biter before you go putting your hand in the cage.
Gerbils will be more inquisitive to their new hosts and will not usually bite or scratch once they get to know the scent of your hand. Carefully put your hand in the cage and let them come to you. As they get used to you, start stroking their back and then carefully start to try and pick them up.
What if I lose it?
First of all don’t panic, provided there are no cats in your home, the pet can survive on its own for a couple of days. Remember that it is probably scared and will look for somewhere safe to hide. Check around the cage, under furniture, bags on the floor, tissue boxes, warm and dark places. Leave the cage open and put some food near it, so it tries to find its own way back.
Put a line of flour by every doorway so you can see if it crosses through rooms and put sunflower seeds in piles, surrounded by flour, so you can follow its tracks. If you can’t catch it yourself, try a humane mouse-trap and bait it with peanut butter.
What if it dies?
If the worst happens and little hammy gets a visit from the angel of death whilst in your care; don’t rush to the nearest pet shop for a replacement. That may be the reason why your class hamster seemingly lived for decades, but it’s not as straightforward as simply picking another hammy in the same colour. School pets have to be bought from specialist breeders and have to be checked by a vet before they are allowed into the classroom. Tell the teacher as soon as possible and break the news gently to your child.
Do you have any tips on looking after your school pet?
Louise Blake is a writer and mummy blogger from Bath, where she lives with her husband and baby son. She writes about parenting and educational issues for Carrot Rewards.