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News Review From Harvard Medical School — Bad Petting Zoo Habits Studied

Robert H Shmerling, MD, from Harvard Medical School, was questioned about the results of three studies concerning petting zoos, bacterial infection, and preventative measures that people can take.

What Is the Doctor’s Reaction?
More than ever before, doctors recognize the virtue of good handwashing to prevent infectious illness. I’ve seen the results of poor hand hygiene firsthand, when my daughter petted a variety of animals at a local fair and soon after developed a high fever and significant gastrointestinal distress (to put it mildly). I’ve also seen good efforts to combat communicable diseases in our hospital — buttons worn by staff now urge patients and visitors to ask their caregivers whether they’ve washed their hands.

Considering how easy it is to prevent these infections through good handwashing, we can and should do better.

What Changes Can I Make Now?
Here are some you can make to stay healthy during and after visiting with your favorite animals:

  1. Wash your hands after any animal contact, especially if you will be eating soon afterward.
  2. When you wash, use soap and water, lather up and scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse well and dry. While we’ve all skipped one or more of these steps from time to time, take the time to wash well after touching zoo animals.
  3. Don’t bring food into the petting zoo. If you eat it there, you increase the risk of becoming ill and, if an animal sees or smells the food, it may come after you!
  4. Keep your hands away from animals’ mouths and don’t turn your back on an animal when it is nearby.
  5. Watch your children carefully in petting zoos and be a role model for them by demonstrating good hand hygiene.

Animal handlers also can make changes to protect the public from illness after animal exposure. For example, zoos can create transition areas between places where the public comes into contact with animals and areas where people eat; these transition areas are ideal places for handwashing facilities.

There is no reason that interacting with animals at a petting zoo has to be risky. To reduce the risk of illness related to animal contact, public health officials and animal handlers will have to take the issue seriously and make it easy for people to take effective precautions.

What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?
According to a recent report from the CDC, petting zoos are minimally regulated. If the frequency of animal-related infections continues to rise — especially serious infections such as E. coli O157:H7 — it’s likely that regulations will be strengthened to improve the safety of petting zoos and other places where people come into contact with animals.

However, there’s no reason to wait for regulations to reduce your risk of illness after visiting a petting zoo. Wash your hands often, wash them well and encourage others around you to do the same.

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