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The Dangers of Petting Zoos

Zuzana Bleha
July 18, 2017



Summer break is here and children are out of school and headed to camps or trips with their families. If one of your plans is to head to a petting zoo or anywhere around farm or wild animals, take note of the nasty and sometimes serious illnesses you or your children can catch if you're not careful.

Zoonotic diseases are diseases caused by germs be

tween animals and humans. A lot of animals carry some type of parasite or disease and many of them can be spread to humans through direct contact with animals, their feces, bodily fluids, surroundings or food. Common zoonotic diseases include e.Coli, salmonella, campylobacteriosis and listeria. These can cause gastrointestinal illness, fever and possibly death.


Common Zoonotic Diseases


According to the CDC, here are some of the zoonotic diseases you can be exposed to from farm animals:


E. coli


Escherichia coli is a type of bacteria that is normally found in the intestinal tracts of healthy farm animals. Most types of E. coli are harmless, but some can cause serious disease in people. E. coli is a common food-borne bacterium, but it can also be transmitted to people by farm animals and their environment. Farm animals including sheep, goats, calves, and backyard poultry affected by E. coli might not show any signs of disease.


Symptoms in people vary but often include severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Although E. coli infection rarely ends in death, blood in the urine is a sign of more severe disease potentially affecting the kidneys1.




Salmonella is a type of bacteria that spreads to people through contaminated food (eggs and meat) or water or contact with the stool of affected animals, particularly poultry. Salmonella can be found on the bodies of healthy animals when even when they appear healthy and clean. Although it usually doesn’t make farm animals sick, Salmonella can cause serious illness when it is passed to people.


People exposed to Salmonella might have diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal cramps. Infants, elderly persons, and those with weakened immune systems are more likely than others to develop severe illness1.




Campylobacter is shed in the stool of infected animals. It is spread to people through contaminated food, water, or direct contact with contaminated stool. Many animals, including farm animals, may carry the bacteria without looking sick. 


Most people who become sick with campylobacteriosis will have diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within 2-5 days after exposure to the bacteria. Campylobacter can cause serious life-threatening infections in infants, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems1.




Listeria monocytogenes is a type of bacteria that is spread to people and animals through contaminated food, soil, or water. Farm animals that are at risk for Listeria infection include sheep, cattle, goats, and occasionally pigs. Infected animals can have a variety of signs including drooping ears or lips that hang open. Animals sometimes become disoriented and press themselves into corners. Listeria can also cause reproductive problems including abortions and can lead to death of the infected animal.


Listeria is spread to people most commonly through contaminated food. Some people who are affected may not have any signs at all, but the disease can cause headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and convulsions in addition to fever and muscle aches. Listeria infections during pregnancy can be life threatening for the fetus1.


Prevention and Care


Petting goats, feeding llamas, holding chicks, these are all activities adults and children can still enjoy with a little bit of caution. Here are some tips for prevention of zoonotic diseases:


  • Frequent hand washing is the most important thing you can do when visiting a facility with animals. Bacteria can grow and double in number in less than 20 minutes! Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds. Remember to get the often missed areas such as underneath your fingernails. You can watch a video on the proper hand washing technique at this link . If water is not available, bring a hand sanitizer with at least 70% alcohol with you.


  • Don't bring food that you're consuming near the animals or share food with animals.


  • Don't allow children in contact with animals to put their fingers in their mouths or to touch their face until they have washed their hands thoroughly


  • Look out for facilities that do not have accessible sinks, restrooms, washing stations or sanitizer available close to the animals


  • Facilities should educate visitors on the importance of hand washing with posters and sineage and instruction


Download Hand Washing Posters


Activities around animals can be fun and therapeutic but it's also important to remember that there are invisible risks involved. Take the time and care to keep yourself and children safe around animals by frequently washing your hands.



 1 CDC - Farm Animals/Healthy Pets " 


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