Q-fever, a serious disease caused by the bacterium Coxiella burnetii, is an important concern at petting zoos because small ruminants (sheep and goats) are commonly present at these events and they are the major source of this pathogen. The risk is greatest around adult animal at the time of birthing, and around the new lambs and kids (baby goats), because this is when large numbers of highly infectious Coxiella can be shed. That’s one of the reasons why pregnant small ruminants shouldn’t be part of any petting zoo, but unfortunately this particular recommendation is widely disregarded.

Other than petting zoos, the general public can also have contact with small ruminants through various other routes. An outbreak of Q-fever in the Netherlands (a country with serious Q-fever problems) was reported in association with one of these atypical events, namely "lamb viewing days" on a farm (Whelan et al, Epi Infect 2012).

This farm was open to the public every year during lambing season, and attracted about 12000 visitors from the area annually. Visitors could watch lambs being born (if the timing was right) and interact with young lambs. After finding a cluster of Q-fever cases in the region, an investigation ensued, which compared people who were diagnosed with Q-fever in the region to a group of people without Q-fever. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 21% of people with Q-fever reported visiting the farm compared to just 1% of controls.
  • When various other factors were controlled in the analysis, having visited the farm meant someone was 43.3 times as likely to have Q-fever compared to someone who didn’t visit the farm.
  • Coxiella burnetii was identified in numerous sheep, as well as from 7 of 8 air samples collected on the farm.  (Coxiella is a very small, hardy organism that can resist drying, and it can therefore often be found in the dust in the air in areas that have a lot of environmental contamination, like pens where goats and sheep give birth.)
  • Specific contacts (e.g. holding a lamb, witnessing a birth) were not identified as risk factors, but the small sample size of people that reported what types of contact they had may have limited the ability to detect a difference.

Visiting farms and having contact with farm animals shouldn’t necessarily be considered a high-risk behaviour. In fact, in some ways it’s a good thing. Greater contact between people and animals and a better understanding of farm animals can be very beneficial. However, we’ve known for a long time that some situations pose an increased and unnecessarily high risk. People organizing farm encounters or petting zoos need to take some basic precautions to reduce the risk to visitors. These are pretty simple and can be done without significantly affecting the visitors’ experience. Visitors also need to take some responsibility themselves and follow recommendations, like practicing good hand hygiene and keeping food and drink out of animal areas (just to name a couple). Additionally, the more visitors know about risks and preventive measures, the more they can pressure facilities into doing things right. Public health personnel can work hard to try to improve petting zoos and other events, but nothing will change things quicker than an informed public withholding their money from places that put them at unnecessary risk.