Dr. Marlene M. Coleman, MD, is a Board Certified Pediatrician with an emphasis on adolescent medicine and a subspecialty in travel medicine, an Associate Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Southern California Medical school, and an attending physician at the California Institute of Technology.
Cautionary reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggest that direct contact with animals may expose little hands to infection by E. coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Cryptosporidia, West Nile virus, rabies, avian flu, or other diseases.
Dr. Coleman mentions that while petting an animal may not in itself pose any threat, young children may quickly transfer bacteria from the animal’s skin to their own mouth, eyes or nose, either by direct touching or by handling food with unwashed hands. With a few simple precautions, children can safely enjoy this tender and memorable experience:
Ask about certification. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets standards for proper care of animals. Certification reduces the risk that visitors will get sick.
Evaluate risk. Children under 5, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems are especially susceptible to infection and should be particularly cautious about making contact with farm animals.
Wash hands. Everyone should wash hands thoroughly after visiting an animal enclosure even if the animals were not touched. Wash with hot, soapy water, lather for at least 20 seconds with special attention to fingernails, rinse thoroughly, and dry with air or disposable towels. (Baby wipes and waterless hand sanitizers have not yet been proven effective against animal-borne bacteria.)
Don’t mix petting and eating. Be sure that children finish their lunches and snacks completely before visiting the animals.
Watch for hand-mouth contact. Wiping a sniffly nose, biting nails, sucking thumbs (or pacifiers), rubbing eyes, and other types of face-touching should be carefully avoided after touching animals and before washing hands. Also, children should be warned against kissing the animals.
Avoid animal droppings. Little children may be intrigued by animal feces, but should avoid touching them. If enclosures seem excessively dirty, cancel your visit rather than risk infection.
Bring along clean clothes. Until they’re washed in hot, soapy water, clothes can be contaminated with bacteria, so a change of clothes is a good idea.
Be aware of symptoms. If symptoms such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea occur within a week of a visit to a petting zoo, see a right away.