I’m back from a week away with no internet access, so I have some catching up to do. One of the first things I stumbled across on my return was an article in the Guelph Tribune about a summer kids camp at the Guelph Humane Society. At the camp the kids get exposed to various aspects of animal care and welfare, and have field trips to sites like a Donkey Sanctuary and Butterfly Conservatory. Some parts of it sound quite good, but it’s clear that the kids get to have a lot of contact with shelter animals, since playing with the animals is the "highlight of the camp," and as the camp director states "Who wouldn’t want to hang out with cats and dogs all day?"

I have nothing against young kids having contact with pets (being the father of three young kids and the owner of multiple pets). Contact with animals is very rewarding for children, and a program to increase awareness about pets, animal care and the problems with overpopulation could be a great thing. However, I’m not sure that this is the best way. I only have a superficial idea of what happens at this camp based on the article, but I have a few different concerns.

Child safety

  • Any contact between people and pets carries some (albeit very low) risk of infection. Certain things increase the risk. One is young age. Kids are at increased risk of infection. The day camp had children between 5 and 13 years of age – the young end of this range certainly could be considered a high risk group.
  • Another issue is the increased likelihood that animals are shedding infectious agents. Shelter animals are definitely a high risk group, because of factors such as young age, stress, mixing of animals from various sources, illness, and under- (or lack of) vaccination and deworming.
  • The lack of good knowledge of temperament of these animals is another concern, as it’s harder to predict whether an unfamiliar animal might be more likely to bite or scratch. I assume (hope) that the kids are only allowed to have contact with animals that have been assessed in some way, but it’s difficult to know how an animal is going to react in certain situations.
  • Another consideration is the sometimes unpredictable nature of contact that kids have with animals. Young kids don’t inherently know how to interact with strange animals. Even if they act very well around their own pets, they may act differently in a strange situation with animals that act differently, and not know how to detect or respond to signals that the animal is aggressive or afraid.  Education and supervision are important and should be a part of a program, but you can’t instantly eliminate these risks.
  • The humane society environment can also be assumed to be pathogen-rich – there is a high likelihood that various surfaces (e.g. floors, counters) throughout the facility are contaminated with various bacteria, fungi and parasites.
  • Kids could also transfer infectious agents to the household, something that is of greatest concern if there are very young, elderly or immunocompromised individuals present.

Humane society safety

  • Humane societies are at constant risk of infectious diseases, including outbreaks. Outbreaks can cause major problems, including temporary closure, illness in staff or owners of newly adopted animals (e.g. ringworm), or mass euthanasia. Infection control measures can be highly variable in humane societies, and adding a group of kids to the mix certainly doesn’t help. The more contact and movement in a facility, the greater the risk of disease transmission. Strict adherence to careful infection control protocols (which is not often the case, even at the best of times) is required. Good practices at the camp such as careful attention to hygiene, restricting contact with certain groups of animals, and very careful supervision could reduce the risk of disease transmission, but you can never eliminate the added risk that this type of program would bring.

Pet safety

  • Various infectious diseases could be transported home on the bodies of kids or their clothing. Some of these could pose a risk to any pets in the household. Risks are much greater if there are young, old, sick or inadequately vaccinated pets in the house.

I wonder whether the parents of these children were informed (in writing or otherwise) that their kids would be exposed to a increase risk of infectious diseases, bites and scratches, that they should take measures to reduce the risk of disease transmission when the child returns home, and what precautions are being taken at the camp.