Kids and Petting Zoos

Simple Steps Can Prevent Infections at Petting Zoos

6 min read

Five cases of life-threatening kidney failure highlight the needs for parents to take special precautions when their child visits a petting zoo.

According to published repots, five children in Florida have developed a condition that likely stems from contact with animals infected with a strain of E. coli bacteria called 0157:H7. Usually this infection comes from eating undercooked beef or contaminated food. These children may have been exposed to E. coli through animal feces, according to health officials.

The five children have developed a complication of E. coli infection called hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS. Four of the children had visited a local fair in Orlando, Fla. The fifth child developed the infection after visiting a petting zoo in Plant City, Fla.

Infection with this strain of E. coli can cause severe abdominal cramps and diarrhea, which may become bloody by the second or third day, according to the medical experts at, a WebMD company. Nausea and vomiting are present in approximately half of the patients. Most patients recover in seven to 10 days, but some (6%) go on to have HUS. This is most likely to happen in children and the elderly. Some patients develop brain problems, such as seizures. Many patients require dialysis and blood transfusions. About 3% to 5% of people with HUS die.

This is not the first time that an outbreak of E. coli has occurred from visiting a petting zoo. In 2001, 16 children who had visited a petting zoo at Merrymead Farm in Worcester, Pa., developed E. coli and another 45 people were suspected to have become ill from the bacteria.

Such outbreaks are rare, says Elichia A. Venso, PhD, director and associate professor of environmental health science at Salisbury State University in Maryland. But incidents like these put the spotlight on petting zoo safety.

But parents don't need to avoid such zoos altogether, says Venso. They just need to know how to keep E. coli and other animal-borne organisms from infecting their kids.

E. coli is one of the most common bacteria around. E. coli bacteria cannot penetrate the skin, so simply touching an animal or area contaminated with it doesn't pose a threat. However, touching the eyes, nose, mouth, or other mucus membranes after touching a contaminated surface is a major route of infection. So is ingesting E. coli-contaminated food. For young children -- whose immune systems can be hit hard by this bacteria, and who tend to put everything in their mouths -- the potential for illness is clear.

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 after.
  • "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 treats.
  • 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 chances.
  • 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.

None of this is to say that children should be kept from animals. There are a lot of benefits to be gained by kids interacting with animals, says Linda J. Lyons, MSW, LICSW, a therapist who uses animals when she works with troubled children -- such as decreased anxiety, increased confidence, and the chance to connect with another living being in a nonthreatening way.

And thanks to our increasingly urban society, "a petting zoo may be the only place where kids are exposed to animals besides cats and dogs," she says.

Jayarao agrees.

"It would be a shame to see these small petting zoos disappear because of this outbreak," he says. Instead, he hopes that health departments will work with local petting zoos to help them develop safer practices.

He also hopes that parents become informed about the risks and take some precautions to safeguard their kids.

After all, he says, "A petting zoo is a great thing."

Michele Bloomquist is a freelance writer based in Brush Prairie, Wash. She writes frequently about consumer health.