Old MacDonald had a healthy farm

Playing it safe and staying healthy at the petting zoo or farm.

Simple precautions make petting zoo visits safe and successful for all.
Simple precautions make petting zoo visits safe and successful for all.

A popular activity during the summer for many families is a trip to the local petting zoo or farm. Young kids love animals. These trips should be kept to a maximum length of two hours, however, because at this point very young kids could become tired or cranky. Visiting mid-week when crowds are smaller also makes the experience more enjoyable. In larger communities, where hands-on experiences might be rare for children, the experience of seeing animals is invaluable. Typically, petting zoo animals are usually cows, horses, chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, cats and rabbits. They are more than happy to approach a little hand holding a yummy treat such as grain or a carrot.

Animals at petting zoos and farms are well taken care of and their health is closely monitored. All different species of animals naturally carry bacteria and viruses that may or may not have an effect on them. Often times, the bacteria and viruses animals naturally carry are zoonotic, meaning disease can be transferred from animals to humans or from humans to animals. This can be an issue to children whose immune systems are still developing or in adults whose immune systems may be compromised, such as elderly people or pregnant women. Generally, diseases are transmitted in three ways: direct contact, such as petting; indirect contact, such as from common surfaces; and through the air by sneezing or coughing.

Most reputable petting zoos have very strict policies on the cleanliness of pastures and stalls where animals live, graze and play, and the general public areas. According to a Consumer Affairs article, “Dangers of Petting Zoos Often Overlooked,” the most common form of bacteria is E. coli, which can be present in animal feces. Similar to humans who have good and harmful bacteria, naturally you should expect that among petting farm animals as well. Therefore, simple precautions should be exerted whenever visiting a petting zoo.

Michigan State University Extension offers the following suggestions to keep you and your child healthy at a petting farm:

  • To prevent illness, parents and caregivers should insist on handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Hand sanitizer should not be used as a substitute for soap and water.
  • Keep young hands out of their mouths. Young children put everything in their mouths and should be supervised closely.
  • Tell children to only pet animals with their hands – NO KISSES! Do not let them touch their mouths, eyes or noses after petting their animals. This could be a real issue for children who have a habit of thumb sucking or nail biting.
  • Eat before arriving at the zoo or farm. It’s important to eat before arriving and to not eat crackers, ice cream or other snacks during the visit.
  • Stay away from all manure as you walk around the facility.
  • Watch for symptoms of illness after a visit. Symptoms include severe abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. If you or your child does get sick, be sure to mention the visit to the animal farm to your health care provider. Bacteria occasionally can be picked up by leaning on a fence and getting it on clothes or walking through a contaminated area with shoelaces dragging through the mud. Wash items in hot, soapy water as soon as you get home.

If you are considering a change of plans – don’t. These reasons are not enough to keep young children from spending time with and learning about animals. There are a lot of dangers in life, but we don’t hesitate to do them. Instead, we learn how to do them properly. Pre-planning and following simple safety precautions will keep everyone safe, including the animals. Most children are only exposed to dogs and cats. There are many benefits to hands-on experiences with animals. They can help decrease anxiety, increase confidence and much more.

Petting Zoo Dangers” by Connect with Kids has additional information regarding a safe visit to a petting zoo.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.     

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