Petting zoos may be hazardous to your children’s health

New research finds that petting zoos may be a source of “highly virulent, drug-resistant pathogens being passed on to visitors.”

“Immediate actions by zoo operators should include installation of hand-washing stations to ensure proper hand-washing before and after petting animals, prohibiting food and drinking near animals, and also not allowing petting of animals receiving antibiotic treatment,” said Professor Shiri Navon-Venezia of Ariel University, Ariel, Israel.

“Our findings demonstrate that animals in petting zoos can result in shedding and transmission of MDR pathogens that may cause illness for human visitors, even when the animals appear healthy. We recognize the high educational and emotional value of petting zoos for children, therefore, we strongly recommend that petting zoo management teams implement a strict hygiene and infection control policy, together with rationalized antibiotic policy, in order to reduce the risk of transmission between animals and visitors,” Navon-Venezia said.

Petting zoos are a popular attraction around the world, allowing visitors access to a diverse range of animal species. But they differ from regular zoos because rather than visitors just looking at the animals, petting zoos are interactive with children visiting, holding and petting the animals, possibly exposing them to a diverse reservoir of multidrug resistant (MDR) bacteria, which could lead to highly virulent drug-resistant pathogens being passed on to visitors.

About the study

The researchers did a study across 8 randomly chosen petting zoos geographically distributed throughout Israel, taking samples of fecal matter as well as from the body surface (skin, fur, or feathers) from 228 animals belonging to 42 different species. Genetic sequencing was used to identify both the species of bacteria in each sample, and the presence of drug resistance genes. Zoo owners were given questionnaires about the ages and medical histories of their animals which were analyzed to determine additional risk factors.

In total, 382 samples were collected from 228 animals, and 12% of the animals were found to be colonized with at least one bacterial strain, with 35 different recovered species of bacteria. The majority (77%) of the MDR bacteria were obtained from feces, with the remaining 23% coming from skin, fur, or feathers. A quarter of those animals which tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria were colonized by more than one bacterial strain. Among the bacterial strains identified, were the highly virulent E. coli ST656, which causes travelers’ diarrhea, and E. coli ST127; a frequent cause of urinary tract infections in humans.

Analysis of the data revealed that if an animal was treated with antibiotics it was seven times more likely to shed MDR bacteria.

The study was presented at this year’s European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Amsterdam, Netherlands.