As fall fair season starts, concerns about petting zoo outbreaks rise. While deficiencies are still common, petting zoos seem to be getting better with their infection control measures. People too are starting to get better at doing what their asked to do – namely washing their hands after visiting these exhibits. However, as we’ve shown through a few different studies, compliance with handwashing after being in a petting zoo is far from perfect. People also often fail to recognize the need to wash hands after being in a petting zoo even if they don’t touch an animal. It’s not uncommon to see a family come out of a petting zoo and the parents direct the kids to wash their hands, while the parents themselves just stand back and watch. Yes, if you touch the animals you’re more likely to have contaminated your hands. However, it’s been shown in a few studies and outbreaks that just being in the petting zoo area is a potential risk, and that disease-causing bacteria can be spread to a variety of hand contact surfaces.  In short, the bugs aren’t just on the animals.

A recent study in Zoonoses and Public Health (Pabilonia et al 2013) provides more evidence. Researchers visited poultry exhibits at agricultural fairs in Colorado and collected samples from areas like cages, feed, floors and tables, i.e. areas where there was direct contact with birds and areas that visitors might touch. They were able to grow Salmonella from 10 of 11 fairs that they visited. Overall, greater than 50% of surfaces that they tested were contaminated with Salmonella. It wasn’t surprising that finding Salmonella was fairly easy, but that number is pretty high.

Does this mean that poultry exhibits should be banned? No. But it indicates that there is some risk, presumably with any poultry exhibit anywhere.

How can you reduce the risk?

  • Don’t eat or drink in poultry exhibit areas.
  • Wash your hands after leaving (even if you don’t touch anything).
  • Don’t take in items that might go into a child’s (or anyone’s) mouth (e.g. sippy cups, pacifiers).

Particular care must be taken with kids less than five years of age, elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems. That could mean staying out of the exhibit altogether, or just being extra diligent about the basic measures listed above – it really depends on the scenario, the ability to follow these practices, and the level of risk aversion.

What should fairs do?

  • Take measures to reduce environmental contamination, such as housing birds in such a way that bedding doesn’t get spread everywhere.
  • Regularly clean environmental hand contact surfaces (e.g. railings, arms on seating/benches).
  • Provide signs to make sure that people know what to do (e.g. wash their hands, don’t eat and drink).
  • Supervise exhibits.
  • Provide good hand hygiene facilities.

These measures aren’t too hard to implement and they’re much better than dealing with an outbreak.