Zoonotic diseases in the Classroom

This week is Animal Health Week (October 2-8) and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association is focusing on the importance of ‘One Health,’ meaning that the health of humans, animals and ecosystems is interconnected. With this theme in mind, guest blogger and 4th year animal science student Kelsey Neill discusses zoonotic diseases, classroom animals and what you need to know.

Zoonotic Diseases in the Classroom

hamster-eating_blogIf you’re a teacher that has a classroom pet (or are thinking of getting one) you have many responsibilities. Not only are you responsible under the Animal Protection Act for ensuring the pet is free of distress, you also need to meet the animal’s needs by maintaining a daily feeding schedule, cleaning schedule, ensuring proper housing conditions and taking the pet in for regular veterinarian visits. Along with the animal’s welfare, teachers must also be cognisant of their students’ safety. Quite a few different classroom pets are natural carriers of zoonotic diseases. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that are transferable between humans and animals, such as rabies, salmonella, and cat scratch fever. It is important for teachers to be aware of the fact that students could contract these infections and become sick if the proper prevention protocol is not followed. In honour of animal health week this month’s blog will be all about zoonotic diseases that could happen in the classroom and how to prevent them.

There are quite a number of common classroom pets that carry zoonotic diseases. For example, frogs, turtles, chicks, bearded dragons, hamsters, lizards, and gerbils are all natural carriers of the salmonella bacteria.  Each zoonotic disease has a different method of transmission, however a majority of animals will shed the infection through their feces, urine, or saliva. For an animal who lives in a small enclosure it is very easy for them to come in contact with their own wastes, which means that most infected classroom animals will be carrying the virus/bacteria on their skin or fur.  If a student picks up an infected animal and starts petting or playing with it, they will likely come in contact with the infection. Unless the student has broken skin or the animal has a respiratory illness, the student will likely not become directly infected from the handling of the animal alone. Rather, it is what happens after the animal is handled that has the most consequences for the student’s health.

This is where the main strategy for prevention comes in: hand washing. If the students are required to wash their hands after handling the animal, disease transmission to the students is much less likely. On the other hand, if there is no hand washing protocol in place the students will likely go back to their desk where they will eat lunch and directly introduce the virus/bacteria on their hands into their mouth, and disease transmission will be a serious possibility.

The risk of disease transmission and the seriousness of the potential symptoms is varied depending on what zoonotic disease is being called into question. Some zoonotic diseases don’t transmit well, whereas other diseases are highly contagious. At the same time, some zoonotic diseases have very mild symptoms and others can be life threatening. Regardless of the disease risk and severity, what’s important is that the potential is there for students to become seriously ill and as a result all zoonotic diseases should be treated in the same way.

The best way to ensure the health and safety of your students from zoonotic diseases is to prevent transmission from ever occurring in the first place. If you have a classroom pet or are thinking of getting one, here are some general zoonotic disease prevention tips:

  • Make sure every student washes their hands with soap and water after handling the classroom pet, or its cage and bedding. If you do not have access to a sink in your classroom, invest in alcohol based hand sanitizers instead. Here is fun way to teach hand washing to your class.
  • Vaccinate the pet if it is a species that is eligible for vaccination.
  • Practice good hygiene practices and clean the animals cage/tank, food dishes, bedding, and toys on a regular basis.
  • Separate the animal from possible contact with food, or surfaces in which food is prepared or eaten on.
  • Disinfect any surfaces that the animal comes in contact with outside of their cage or tank.
  • When possible, avoid having classroom pets in classes where a majority of the children are five years old or under. This is because they have increased susceptibility to disease transmission as their immune system is not fully developed. As well, younger children are less educated about how to handle animals and accidents may happen that compromise both the animal and the student’s welfare.
  • Talk to your students about zoonotic diseases! Approximately 60% of the diseases that plague humans are zoonotic. Therefore, having a proper knowledge base about zoonotic diseases and how to prevent them will be useful to the students both inside and outside the classroom. Here are some fun age-based exercises you can do with your students to teach them about infectious diseases. This link doesn’t focus on zoonotic diseases specifically, but it has a lot of good information that can be applicable to any infectious disease (including zoonotic diseases).

In conclusion, while there are already many different welfare and responsibility concerns associated with having classroom pets, zoonotic diseases are another concern that teachers have to acknowledge. It is important that proper prevention protocol is followed regarding classroom animals, otherwise the health of students can be compromised.

Bio:

Kelsey Neill is a 4th year animal science student at the University of Alberta and an Alberta SPCA education department intern. She is most interested in zoonotic diseases, animal behavior, and animal nutrition. She spends her free time watching Netflix and has a German shepherd named Izzy that she loves to walk.

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Blog posts represent the opinion of the author and not necessarily the opinion of the Alberta SPCA.