I’ve written about transfer of zoonotoc disease or pathogens from contact with animals and their “by-products” at state and county fairs, petting zoos and even the classroom. It still remains an important aspect in the transfer of zoonotic diseases.

A new article in Zoonoses and Public Health, “Observation of Public Health Risk Behaviors, Risk Communication and Hand Hygiene at Kansas and Missouri Petting Zoos – 2010-2011" by Kansas State University’s food safety expert Doug Powell, PhD, Gonzalo Erdozain, Katherine KuKanich, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACVIM, and North Carolina State University’s Ben Chapman, PhD, highlights illnesses caused by petting zoos and the like.

It focused on the behaviors of children and adults at these venues that can lead to illness from contact of animals and their surroundings, especially when hygiene is lax or nonexistent.

The paper notes that high-risk animals (those most associated with zoonotic diseases) include chicks, young ruminants (kid goats), sheep and cattle. These animals are often at petting zoos, classroom farm visits or even in the classroom (who doesn’t remember having baby chicks in the classroom?).

Frequently observed behaviors were as follows: children (10/13 petting zoos) and adults (9/13 petting zoos) touching hands to face within animal-contact areas; animals licking children’s and adults’ hands (7/13 and 4/13 petting zoos, respectively); and children and adults drinking within animal-contact areas (5/13 petting zoos each).

See a table of petting zoo outbreaks here.

Veterinarians’ roles
Is there a role for veterinarians in these community activities that bring together the young with farm animals? You bet. "Veterinarians are the front line of defense when it comes to zoonotic disease transmission,” says study co-author Erdozain, a Kansas State University master of public health student. “We need to be proactive and inform people about the risks involved with human-animal interactions and how to lower them, in order for any experience to be fun, informative, and safe.

For teachers or any person trying to organize such events at a school, it's pretty much the same thing, Erdozain says. “Bring animals to a part of the premises not commonly used by students (as contamination can endure in such areas for months). Supervise your students, don't let them eat or drink (whether it's human or animal food) within the animal area, and make sure they properly wash their hands (water, soap, paper towels) before and after petting the animals.”

KuKanich adds that petting zoos are a great educational setting for kids to have a hands-on experience with farm animals. “Although a veterinarian's role in a petting zoo is behind the scenes,  it can be critical to the safety of that zoo and the human-animal interaction,” she says. “Veterinarians play an important role in educating petting zoo administrators and staff about infectious disease transmission and risk, to ultimately keep the public safe. Identifying, isolating, and treating sick animals is only one aspect of their role in protecting the public.”

Veterinarians should also remind clients that animals do not have to appear ill to be shedding infectious organisms (such as E. coli), and so good hygiene, such as hand washing, is really important for any visitors who pet an animal.

Veterinarians can also help advise on zoo design (keeping flow of traffic in one direction) and cleaning strategy (using plastic rather than wooden fencing for easier cleaning). “Veterinarians should also encourage constant vigilance of petting zoo staff within animal enclosures for monitoring animal-visitor interactions and reminding visitors to wash their hands, so that all petting zoo visits can be educational, positive, and safe,” KuKanich adds.

“People — and vets — have to be a lot more careful than they perhaps think,” says Powell. “We see too many sick people, especially kids, linked to what should be a fun activity.”

Visit Powell’s food safety site here.