I’ve written several posts about petting zoos, mainly about the potential negative aspects, although I still think they’re valuable if run properly. A major concern with these events is exposure of people to zoonotic infectious diseases, particularly harmful bacteria that can be carried by healthy animals. One of the more common pathogens that causes disease outbreaks associated with petting zoos, including severe or even fatal infections in people, is verotoxigenic E. coli, particularly E. coli O157.

A recent study by Pritchard et al. in the Veterinary Record highlights some of the concerns with this pathogen. Samples were collected from various animals on 31 different farms in the UK. They found verotoxigenic E. coli on 61% of premises. The premises selected were evaluated due to suspicion that they may have been sources of infection for people, so it’s possible that the numbers reported in the study are higher than they would be for all such farms overall, nonetheless the numbers are impressive.  Risk factors for finding verotoxigenic E. coli on a given farm were the presence of young cattle and (surprisingly) adult pigs. Verotoxigenic E. coli were most commonly identified in cattle (29%). It wasn’t surprising that cattle, especially young cattle (calves), were the most common carriers based on what we know about the bacterium.  However, it was impressive how commonly it was found in other species, including sheep (24%), donkeys (15%), pigs (14%), horses (12%) and goats (10%). On most farms where verotoxigenic E. coli was found, the same strain was identified in multiple animal species, indicating that the bacterium can be wide spread on the property. This may be because different animal species in petting zoos are often mixed together, as opposed to the situation on conventional farms where they are usually housed separately.

Does this mean we should consider petting zoos biohazardous and avoid them? Well, the answer really is "yes" and "no". We should consider petting zoos as potential sources of harmful bacteria. High-risk people (e.g. very young, very old, weakened immune system) should probably avoid them. We should also think about ways to reduce the risks, such as using lower risk species, having good petting zoo design and, most important, encouraging and enforcing hand hygiene on the part of all petting zoo visitors. As the authors of this study stated “It is also necessary to balance this small risk against the undoubted benefits of allowing the public to interact with farm animals. The risk of people acquiring an infection from animals depends more on the degree of contact and the precautions adopted than the prevalence of infection in a particular species.

If you get verotoxigenic E. coli on your hands but you promptly and properly disinfect them (before contaminating something or putting your fingers in your mouth), you’ll be fine. The quality of petting zoos varies quite a lot, as we showed in a previous study, and pressure should be put on petting zoo operators to have well-designed and well-run events.

More information about petting zoos can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.