Petting zoo pitfalls: Keep germs from coming home with you

File photo
File photo

Many families enjoy visiting petting zoos during the summer.

But research has shown bacteria and germs can make their way from cute fuzzy animals onto your children and into your home.

According to Dr. Frank Esper, of Cleveland Clinic Children’s, this typically happens when children touch an animal and then touch their mouths.

But, he said, parents also need to be aware of what they bring into the petting zoo with them.

“The youngest of children usually come in with bottles or sippy cups -- that’s not a good thing to have -- you do not want to bring a sippy cup in with you, into the enclosed pen with the animals, or pacifiers either,” Esper said. “These types of items can be colonized from the environment, and go right into the child’s mouth, so you don’t want to bring those objects in with them.” 

Esper said while most germs are very specific to either humans or animals, there are actually some germs that can travel from animals to humans and back and forth.

The most common of these germs include E.coli and salmonella, which typically cause gastrointestinal problems.

Esper recommends parents make sure the whole family is practicing good hand hygiene before and after entering the petting zoo.

He said young children under the age of five have a higher risk of illness, simply because they are not as good at washing their hands and also have the tendency to put their hands into their mouths.

For these children, it’s best to use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean hands.

Esper also said it’s wise to keep very young children away from the animals that are more likely to harbor dangerous germs.

“For the youngest children -- those under the age of five -- you do not want them to have any exposure to the reptiles,” he said. “Reptiles have a higher salmonella burden, so animals such as baby turtles, snakes and other types of lizards, you want to keep them away from the youngest children.” 

Esper said parents should also keep very young kids away from poultry. Baby ducks, geese and chicks have other types of bacteria that are more likely to cause gastrointestinal upset. 

“For the most part, everyone gets to have a great time at these petting zoos, or county fairs, and there’s absolutely no reason for you not to go and enjoy that experience, with good understanding that you should go ahead and wash your hands both before and after the encounters, as well as you’re making sure that you’re not bringing anything in that goes into your mouth with you,” Esper said.