Fair and Petting Zoo Safety

A resource for fair and petty zoo legal cases and outbreak prevention, sponsored by Marler Clark

Fair and Petting Zoo Safety:  Preventing E. coli Outbreaks

Millions of Americans get in touch with their rural roots each year by taking children to agricultural fairs and petting zoos.  Venues like the state fair are as “American as apple pie,” but without precautions, these “apple pie” experiences can result in illness.

Bringing the general public into direct contact with animals can result in the transmission of a host of pathogens that are public health hazards.  These hazards include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.  Certain segments of the population are more at-risk for contracting these pathogens:  the young, the elderly, pregnant women, and anyone with a suppressed or compromised immune system such as people infected with HIV/AIDS, cancer patients, and organ transplant recipients.

Public health officials have long recognized the need to maintain a sanitary environment in petting zoos and fairs, but outbreaks of E. coli O157:H7, Non-O157 STEC, Cryptosporidium, Campylobacter, and other diseases among fair and petting zoo attendees have drawn increased public attention to the need for animal exhibitors to involve local health departments, veterinarians, and sanitarians in planning to ensure a safe environment for exhibit attendees.

The National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV) warned in 2013 that animals are more likely to shed pathogens while being exhibited “because of stress induced by prolonged transportation, confinement, crowding and increased handling.  Commingling increases the probability that animals shedding pathogens will infect other animals.” (NASPHV, 2013)

NASPHV also stated:

The primary mode of transmission for enteric pathogens is fecal-oral.  Because animal fur, hair, feathers, scales, skin and saliva harbor fecal organisms, transmission can occur when persons pet, touch, feed or are licked by animals.  Transmission also has been associated with exposure to contaminated bedding, flooring, barriers, other environmental surfaces and contaminated clothing and shoes. In addition, illness has resulted from fecal contamination of food, including raw milk and drinking water.

The organization reiterated that contact with animals should only occur in settings where measures are in place to reduce the potential for disease transmission and updated its 2011 recommendations for the prevention of disease associated with animal exhibits.  NASPHV recommendations include the following:

  • Contact with animals should only occur in settings where measures are in place to reduce the potential for disease transmission or injuries.
  • Surveillance for human health issues associated with animal contact should be enhanced, including thorough epidemiological investigations of outbreaks and reporting of outbreaks to proper public health agencies.
  • Educate visitors about the potential for zoonotic disease transmission at animal exhibits, including retail exhibits—use improved signage and have venue staff provide verbal reminders to wash hands after animal contact.
  • Consult with veterinarians, state and local agencies and cooperative extension personnel on implementation of safety recommendations.
  • Design facilities with adequate barriers, floors and other surfaces that are easy to keep clean and to disinfect and provide adequate hand-washing facilities.
  • Establish transition areas through which visitors must pass when entering and exiting animal areas; a one-way flow of visitors is preferred, with separate entrance and exit points.  Entrance transition areas should be designed to facilitate education and exit points should be designed to facilitate hand-washing.

This website was designed to inform parents of the potential risks associated with zoonotic diseases (e.g. diseases from animals to people) at fairs and petting zoos.  We also provide a summary of recent outbreaks and the lessons learned.  Ultimately, we hope that this information serves as a valuable resource for those looking for ways to prevent disease transmission and outbreaks before they occur.