Last weekend, my family and I went to an (indoor) aviary for an outing because the weather was particularly miserable. A new addition to this facility was a large reptile encounter exhibit. As part of this, people were encouraged to handle a bearded dragon (a type of lizard) and a large python. Contact with the animals was extremely popular with most people, including one of my daughters. She held the snake (twice) and the bearded dragon. Part of me was enjoying the experience and seeing what she got out of the encounter, but the infectious disease side of me had some concerns.

Petting zoos and similar animal contact events carry an inherent risk of infectious disease transmission. Outbreaks of various infectious diseases have been reported, mainly associated with farm animals. Reptiles are a particular concern because they can have high rates of Salmonella carriage. Terrestrial reptiles like bearded dragons and pythons are lower risk than species like aquatic turtles, but these animals can still be the source of salmonellosis in humans.

Petting zoos can be entertaining and educational, and fairly safe if run properly. However, deficiencies are often present. At this facility, there were multiple hand hygiene stations, consisting of alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which are very effective. Food and drink were banned in the area and there were staff supervising all animal contacts. These are all good things, however the best measures are useless if they are not used or enforced. While I made sure that my family carefully cleaned their hands, we were definitely in the minority. The hand hygiene stations were not particularly easy to access and there was’t one present at the exit, so if you weren’t looking for it you would probably just leave. Further, despite the signs, staff allowed people to eat and drink in the area where they were handling reptiles. Allowing people to eat and drink, and not providing easy access to the hand sanitizers (two pretty basic measures) were major problems and greatly increase the risk of disease transmission.

I’m not suggesting we should avoid petting zoos. My kids enjoy them and we will surely attend a few this summer. The key with animal contact exhibits is common sense….avoid high risk animals, keep you hands out of your mouth and wash your hands thoroughly when leaving (even if you didn’t touch an animal since you probably touched other surfaces). Some animal species are particularly high risk, including young poultry and young ruminants (e.g. calves, lambs, goats). Reptiles fit into this high risk group, which is why I had more concern about this event than a standard petting zoo. People with compromised immune systems should avoid animal contact, particularly with calves, chicks, lambs and reptiles.

And above all, WASH YOUR HANDS.

A good source of information about animal contact events and infectious diseases is available from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians.