In addition to being a fun and educational place, petting zoos for children provide a safe haven for drug-resistant superbugs, which could result in lethal pathogens being passed on to visitors, researchers have found.
In contrast to more traditional zoos, petting zoos allow visitors – particularly children – to hold and touch the animals kept there.
The study, by scientists at Ariel University in Israel, looked at the risk of drug-resistant bacteria becoming established within these spaces.
Among the bacterial strains identified in petting zoos were the highly virulent E. coli ST656, which causes travellers’ diarrhoea, and E. coli ST127 – a frequent cause of urinary tract infections in humans.
The appearance of the animal also doesn’t seem to be any indication of what kind of illnesses could be caught from it.
Professor Shiri Navon-Venezia, who led the team, says they found drug-resistant germs present in healthy-looking animals.
“We recognise the high educational and emotional value of petting zoos for children,” she said.
“Therefore, we strongly recommend that petting zoo management teams implement a strict hygiene and infection control policy to reduce the risk of transmission between animals and visitors.”
Recommended measures include the installation of hand-washing stations, the prohibition of food and drink consumption near the animals, and separation from visitors of any animals receiving treatment with antibiotics.
The researchers looked at eight randomly-chosen petting zoos geographically distributed across Israel, taking samples of faecal matter, as well as samples from the skin, fur or feathers of 228 animals belonging to 42 different species.
In total, 382 samples were collected from 228 animals, with 12% of the animals found to be colonised with at least one drug-resistant bacterial strain.
Thirty-five different species of harmful bacteria were found. – dpa