Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs 519 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

June 01, 2007

Human Behaviour at Petting Zoos Poses Risk, Study Finds

People visiting petting zoos may be meeting critters other than the typical rabbits, sheep and goats. They may also encounter pathogens like E. coli and Salmonella because few people wash their hands after a visit or take other precautions to protect themselves from zoonotic agents, according to a new study by University of Guelph researchers.

“Petting zoos can be an excellent educational and social event, but there are potential health risks that are not always being properly addressed,” said Prof. Scott Weese, a clinical studies professor at the Ontario Veterinary College who recently headed the most comprehensive study to date on the practices of petting zoos in Ontario.

“They pose risk of exposure to pathogens that can jump from animals to humans," he said. "These organisms can make their way into a human visitor's mouth and then cause serious illness.”

The research is scheduled to be published in the July 1 edition of Clinical Infectious Diseases and is available now online.

Although petting zoos are commonplace, there has been minimal evaluation of their practices, said Weese. His study examined 36 petting zoos in Ontario between May and October of 2006. Information was collected on the zoos’ layout, the types of animals present and the permitted animal contact, manure removal, hand hygiene facilities and location of food vendors.

The researchers uncovered numerous problems, including infrequent hand washing, food being sold and consumed near the animals, and children being allowed to drink bottles or suck on pacifiers in the petting area.

“Even though nearly all the zoos provided hand hygiene facilities, on average only 30 per cent of people washed or disinfected their hands after leaving a petting zoo,” Weese said. “This is concerning because hands are the most likely route of transmission of infectious agents from petting zoos, and hand washing is the most protective measure that people can take.”

The worrisome bacteria can live in the intestinal tracts of some animals and are shed in the animals’ feces, he added.

In addition, food or beverages were observed in the petting zoos 82 per cent of the time. And at more than half of the zoos, items that would come into contact with the mouths of infants and children were carried into the animal area, he says.

“It was a common occurrence to see people with items such as baby bottles, pacifiers and baby toys in the petting zoo, which is of concern because babies are at higher risk of acquiring certain zoonotic diseases.”

Weese notes that risk can be significantly reduced by taking some simple measures, including locating hand-washing stations at the exit of a petting zoo, posting signs promoting good hygiene, and educating people about the risks of bringing food, beverages or items that may end up in a child’s mouth into the zoo.

Other OVC researchers who worked on the study are Lisa McCarthy, Michael Mossop and Hayley Martin of the Department of Clinical Studies and Sandra Lefebvre of the Department of Population Medicine.

Prof. Scott Weese
Department of Clinical Studies
(519) 824-4120, Ext. 54064

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, 519-824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982.

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