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Animal Exhibits and Petting Zoos

What's the Problem?

Visits to animal exhibits and petting zoos can result in illness for human visitors. Animals can carry germs that are harmful to humans, even when the animals appear healthy and clean. These illnesses range from minor skin rashes to serious infections. Scientists estimate that more than six out of every 10 known infectious diseases in people are spread from animals and three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases in people are spread from animals. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans will get sick from diseases spread between animals and people. In the past 20 years, more than 150 outbreaks of Salmonella, E. coli, and other infectious diseases associated with contact with animals in public settings have been reported to CDC.

Who's at Risk?

Everyone can be at risk but these groups have a higher chance of contracting an illness:

  • Children 5 years of age or younger
  • Adults 65 years of age or older
  • Pregnant women
  • People with a weakened immune system (e.g., someone with HIV or a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy)

Can It Be Prevented?

Yes. Proper handwashing with soap and water before and after interacting with the animals reduces your risk. Even if you do not touch them, you should still wash your hands.

Diseases can be spread from direct and/or indirect contact. Direct contact means touching an infected animal and coming into contact with saliva, blood, urine, nasal secretion, feces or other bodily fluid. Indirect contact means touching and interacting with areas where animals live and roam, or objects or surfaces that have been contaminated with germs.

It’s also important to avoid bringing and consuming food and drink around the animals. Children younger than 5 years old always need adult supervision in animal areas and should not put their thumbs, fingers, or objects such as pacifiers in their mouth when they're around animals or in an animal area, such as an empty livestock barn.

Those in charge of animal exhibits and petting zoos can also take measures to provide a safer experience for visitors:

  • Ensure that animals exhibited are healthy and are not showing signs of illness.
  • Design exhibits and zoos to separate animal areas from places where people eat. Use signs to point out the separate spaces.
  • Install handwashing stations at exits with proper signage. Make sure that some of the handwashing stations are low enough for children to reach.
  • Use plain language and pictures to show visitors how to stay safe and healthy when visiting exhibits and zoos.

Bottom Line

Exhibits and petting zoos are a great way to learn more about animals and build important human-animal bonds. However, precautions should be taken when visiting or interacting with the animals and their surroundings in order to keep everyone involved healthy.

Case Example

The Robinson family attend their town’s annual summer fair. In addition to the amusement rides and games, they spend time at the petting zoo. Zach, age 7, and Melanie, age 9, feed the baby chickens, goats, and sheep. Afterwards, Mr. Robinson instructs his children to wash their hands at the designated handwashing station but does not supervise them. Zach washes his hands fast with only water, even though soap is provided. Melanie properly washes her hands with soap. The Robinsons then buy the kids hot dogs and cotton candy at one of the food stands.

A few days later, Zach has a fever and bloody diarrhea. Mrs. Robinson takes him to the hospital where his stool is examined for bacteria. He is diagnosed with E. coli O157:H7. This type of bacteria is often spread by infected farm animal feces and causes serious gastrointestinal symptoms including bloody diarrhea in five to 10 percent of people who come in contact with it. Up to five percent of those who become severely ill (about 60 people a year) die from the infection.

Zach makes a full recovery, but his hospital bills are an unexpected financial burden on the family. He also misses a week’s worth of school and both Mr. and Mrs. Robinson have to take time off from work to care for him.

  • Page last reviewed: December 22, 2016
  • Page last updated: December 22, 2016
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