Kids and Petting Zoos
Simple Steps Can Prevent Infections at Petting Zoos
E. Coli Symptoms continued...
Because animals carrying E. coli 0157:H7 -- typically cattle --
generally don't show any signs of illness, it is impossible for parents to tell
if an animal is infected just by looking at it, says Bhushan Jayarao, MVSc,
PhD, MPH, an extension veterinarian with the department of veterinary science
at Pennsylvania State University.
Nor is wide-scale testing for the bacteria always effective or
feasible. "Most of these petting zoos are small, family-run operations.
Testing is expensive and not always available," says Jayarao.
Besides, an animal that tests clean one week may become
infected the next, giving a false sense of security.
"No petting zoo or farm can guarantee the bacteria isn't
there. Parents should assume that there is a risk and follow safety
precautions," he says.
While the E. coli outbreak has justifiably concerned parents,
it needn't scare them away, Jayarao says. Protecting your kids from E. coli
0157:H7, or any other organism found in a farm environment -- such as
Salmonella, Cryptosporidia, and Listeria -- is largely a
matter of following some simple safety rules, he says:
Wash hands. One of the simplest precautions parents can take is to
be sure kids wash their hands with hot, soapy water after touching the animals
or animal enclosures. Wet hands, apply soap, lather for at least 20 seconds,
paying extra attention to crevices and under fingernails, then rinse. If
hand-washing facilities are not immediately available, antibacterial gel hand
sanitizers can do the trick.
Keep hands out of mouths. If a child is too young to understand this
-- younger than six years old -- parents should accompany the child at all
times while at the zoo. Very young children should probably be carried as an
extra precaution, says Jayarao. Older children can be instructed not to kiss
the animals or touch their own eyes, noses, or mouths after petting the
animals. And don't forget to warn against nail-biting and thumb-sucking, two
other possible ways to become infected.
Keep food and animals separate. Jayarao recommends stopping to eat
and drink before going to the petting zoo rather than doing so during or
- "Children should definitely not wander around in the pens with ice
cream or crackers," he says. And if the children are feeding the animals,
make sure they are old enough to understand they should not share the
Bring a change of clothes. It's easy to forget that a jacket can
become contaminated when a child leans on a railing, or that shoelaces dragging
in the mud can transport bacteria back home, says Venso. The safest bet is to
have the children change their clothes after petting the animals, not to be
worn again until they have been washed in hot, soapy water.
Don't be a poo-bearer. It's obvious, but not to be overlooked. Make
sure children understand the importance of avoiding animal manure. Because E.
coli and other dangerous organisms can be shed in animal feces -- where they
can remain active for long periods of time -- it is especially important to
avoid contact with these substances, says Venso.
Ask about hygiene. Make sure the animals and the petting areas are
clean and well kept. If there are a lot of animal droppings in the petting
area, or if the animals appear excessively dirty, it's best not to visit.
"Even with the best hygiene practices, these organisms may still be
present," says Jayarao. But if the situation looks unsafe, don't take
Watch for symptoms. If your child does become ill soon after
visiting a petting zoo or farm, call a doctor, says Jayarao. This can save
valuable time in making a diagnosis. Pay close attention to any possible signs
of infection for a week or so after your trip.