Around here, fall fair season is getting into full swing. Fall fairs can be a lot of fun for kids and adults alike, with midway rides, livestock shows, horse events, lots of good (and bad for you) food… and petting zoos. Petting zoos can be entertaining and educational, but they are also the source of numerous disease outbreaks every year, sometimes resulting in serious illness.

Petting zoos are a concern because even healthy-looking farm animals can be infected with harmful bacteria like E. coli O157 or Salmonella. The odds of getting sick at a petting zoo are low, but there is always some degree of risk. Petting zoos are certainly getting better. I tend to cringe less every year, although it’s still not too unusual to see some pretty major issues.

If you are going to go to a petting zoo, think about the following:

  • Kids less than five years of age, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at higher risk for infections. Particular care must be taken by these individuals, and they should avoid any contact with high-risk species like baby calves, lambs, reptiles or young poultry (chicks).
  • Take a look at the animals. Avoid contact with any animal that has diarrhea, skin lesions or that appears sick.
  • If you are taking kids into a petting zoo, watch them closely. Make sure they don’t put their fingers in their mouths or do anything else that would increase the risk of them swallowing harmful microorganisms. Don’t let them carry cups, toys or other personal items that might become contaminated. 
  • Make sure you don’t have any food or drink with you when you enter a petting zoo.
  • Above all, wash your hands thoroughly (ideally) or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (second best option) after you have had contact with any animal OR been in a petting zoo environment. Even if you didn’t touch an animal, you might have contaminated your hands from touching something in the area. In some outbreaks, people that didn’t have contact with animals but were in the area have become sick.

By taking these simple steps you can greatly reduce the risks and make it more likely that the petting zoo will be an enjoyable and infection-free event.

At the same time, while it’s important to take some responsibility for what we do, petting zoo operators need to ensure that their petting zoos are run properly. If you are at a petting zoo that doesn’t comply with expectations, especially if there are problems with access to hand sanitizers or hand washing stations, don’t be afraid to contact your local public health department and let them know.

Image source: