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Sanitation and Illness

boy holding chick

Keep Kids Healthy at the Petting Zoo

By Debra Botzek-Linn, Extension Educator, Food Safety

Reviewed October, 2013 by author.

Recent news reports remind us of the importance of keeping kids healthy when visiting petting zoos. Children enjoy feeding the goats, petting a rabbit, holding a baby chick or riding a pony. Unfortunately, in addition to the cute baby animals, petting zoos sometimes allow kids to meet critters with names like Salmonella or E. coli 0157:H7. These bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of some animals and are shed in the droppings. Animal fur, hair, skin and saliva can become contaminated with bacteria from the droppings and transmission may occur when kids pet, touch or are licked by animals.

While petting zoos can be an excellent educational and social event, unfortunately, many people become sick every year because of a visit to an animal exhibit. The human-animal contact can result in an uncomfortable bout of stomach and intestinal illness with dehydration or more serious illness. At a higher risk for infection are children less than 5 years of age, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems.

The good news is that your kids can have a fun time with the animals as the intervention to prevent illness is known — it's called handwashing! ALWAYS wash hands after leaving the animal facility and petting or holding the animals. In a 2012 Minnesota County Fair Petting Zoo Study, 96% of the petting zoos provided hand hygiene facilities but on average, only 25% of the visitors washed their hands after leaving the petting zoo (Schiffman, unpublished data 2012). Creating soap lather during a 20-second handwashing after leaving the zoo and before eating is significantly protective.

Avoid bringing items into the petting area that would go into babies and children's mouths, such as baby bottles, pacifiers, spill-proof cups, food, beverages and infant toys. These items can easily fall on the ground and become contaminated.

If possible, park strollers outside of animal areas as the wheels get dirty and contaminate the car, house, and kids play on and around strollers.

The most important rules to follow when visiting the petting zoo are to wash your hands, make sure the animals don't kiss your face and keep children's fingers out of their mouths. For all children, animal contact should be carefully supervised by an adult.

Have fun, enjoy the animals, and stay healthy!

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