The latest edition of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports describes an E. coli O157:H7 outbreak associated with a petting zoo. The outbreak, which occurred at a day camp in Florida in 2007, involved 7 infected individuals. Two children were hospitalized. The same E. coli strain affecting the people was found in the stool of goats at the petting zoo.

During the investigation of the facility, it was noted that many of the general recommendations for petting zoos were followed, including providing handwashing stations, promoting hand hygiene compliance, prominent signage, and restricting eating and drinking in the zoo area. This shows that outbreaks can occur even at facilities that seem to be doing a reasonably good job of infection control. However, several key issues were identified:

  • Campers were not instructed how to wash their hands properly.
  • Handwashing was not carefully monitored.
  • There was unlimited (and presumably not completely supervised) contact with animals throughout the day.

Numerous outbreaks of disease associated with petting zoos have been reported, often involving E. coli O157, a strain of E. coli that can cause serious or even fatal disease. This E. coli strain can be found in healthy cattle, sheep and goats. Other potentially harmful microorganisms can also be found in healthy animals of these, and other, species (particularly in their manure). Because you never know whether an animal is “potentially infectious,” taking measures to reduce the risk of disease after possible exposure is critical, particularly meticulous hand hygiene. Restricting high-risk animals (e.g. calves, baby chicks, pregnant sheep and goats) from petting zoos is also important.

Petting zoos can be great events, but carry any inherent risk of disease. More information about petting zoos and the diseases associated with them can be found in a new information sheet on the Worms & Germs Resources page. The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians has also just released its revised Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings, a comprehensive document about measures to reduce the risks associated with petting zoos and other animal contact events.