We have become so used to the fact that E. coli and Salmonella infections are spread through meat, leafy vegetables, fresh produce etc. that we forget where these bacteria originally comes from. These bacteria are quite common in live animals and their habitat. The same animals which can be found in animal exhibits, fairs, and petting zoos.
There have been several outbreaks linked to petting zoos in the past years:
- In 2004, 187 people fell ill with E. coli after attending the North Carolina State Fair, 15 of them developed HUS. It was one of the largest E. coli outbreaks in North Carolina.
- In 2010, 93 people (76 children under 10 years) became sick with E. coli O157:H7 strain after visiting Goldstone Farm in Surrey, UK.
- In 2012, 106 people became ill in North Carolina’s Cleveland County Fair. A 2 year old boy lost his life due to the infection and several others spent weeks in the hospital.
- In 2017, a little girl died and her brother was fighting for his life after they visited the Minnesota zoo and petted some animals there.
According to CDC, around 100 outbreaks were reported to public health officials from 2010-2015 after visiting zoos, fair, agricultural, or educational farms, etc.
The most common pathogen involved in the outbreak is E. coli, but there are others as well such as Salmonella, Cryptosporidium, etc. All of them causes severe diarrhea in those who become infected along with other symptoms such as abdominal cramps, vomiting, etc.
How do people get infected at petting zoos?
- The pathogens that cause illnesses exist in the intestines of the live animals. It is not necessary that animals who have this bacteria in the intestine will show sickness symptoms. These animals shed the bacteria in their feces and can transfer them to other via fecal-oral route. People at petting zoos can get fecal contamination on hands which can get transferred to the mouth.
- The bacteria can be present anywhere on the animal’s body due to fecal contamination. Therefore, it is easy to catch the bacteria after petting the animals without being in contact with the animal’s surroundings.
- Since the bacteria is on the animal’s body, it can get transferred easily to its habitat. Therefore, it is advised that you don’t eat or drink anything that has come in contact with the animal’s surroundings. The bacteria can be present on gates, walls, floors, etc.
What animals hold the least risk of transmission?
- Animals with good temperament are generally the best to pet as it is also a sign of being in good health.
- Healthy animals that are at low risk of shedding infectious pathogens. This generally depends on the species and the age of the animals.
- Adult animals are at less risk of transmission than baby animals.
Some of the animals that make for excellent zoo petting animals are llamas, adult sheep, ponies, goats, horses, and alpacas.
What animals have the highest risk of transmission?
- Baby animals such as baby goats, baby sheep, young lambs and calves shed way more infectious pathogens than the adult ones. They might appear to be too cute to not touch but it’s better to adore them from a distance.
- Pregnant sheep and goat who are just about to give birth should not be allowed to pet.
- Contact with wild animals that do not have a good temperament or are generally not good at human interactions should be kept away from the visitors.
How can you protect yourself and your kids?
- Wash your hands properly at the handwashing stations thoroughly after being in contact with animals or their surroundings. Sanitizers will not work as effectively so handwashing is a must.
- Keep a close eye on children. Keep all the stuff such as pacifiers, toys, strollers that your kid use outside of the animal pen. Do not bring anything to eat or drink near the petting area. Make sure that your kid is already full before coming to the petting venue. You should also ask your child to stay at a safe distance from the animals at all times.
- Don’t go into the animal pens. Petting should be done over a gate or a fence.
- Don’t touch animals that do not look clean enough like having skin lesions etc.
- If you have a scar that is not completely healed or sores, make sure that you cover them before coming in contact with the animals or the surfaces they touch.
Who are at higher risk of infection?
Young children (less than 5 years old), pregnant women, elderly and those with compromised immune system should particularly pay extra attention to their hygiene. Pet only the animals that are absolutely safe and some species should be avoided altogether.
What makes a good petting zoo?
- Thorough information is provided to anyone entering the zoo authorities. The staff should be trained and know all the risks associated with different activities at the zoo. They should inform visitors for the transmission of pathogens and what they can do to protect themselves. The visitors should be made aware that there are certain animals such as baby ruminants, pregnant sheep or goat that are at more risk of spreading infection than other animals.
- The zoo should be designed so as to restrict the entry of the animals in certain venues such as where food is served or infant care facilities. The petting should happen at closely monitored areas over a fence or a gate.
- The food service area should be located completely away from the animal facilities.
- There should be adequate hand washing facilities that is animal-free. The handwashing stations should be readily available with running water, soap and disposable towels.
- There should be banners and posters in the setting that inform the visitors about the pathogen transmission and emphasize on hand washing from time to time.
- Look for signs of cleanliness. The animals should look healthy and clean. The manure and soiled beddings should be cleaned and removed regularly. They should be kept away from public access.
E. coli causes 73000 illnesses in the US annually. Salmonella and E.coli are in top 5 pathogen of foodborne illnesses in the US. Anybody can get sick from food poisoning so it is important that you practice good hygiene at all times.
By: Pooja Sharma, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)