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NDSU Extension Service, Published June 22 2009

Wash hands after leaving petting zoo

FARGO - Petting zoos and fairs are great ways for kids to learn about animals, but the youngsters may take home more than they anticipated.

Contact with animals poses serious health risks, especially for young children who are prone to putting objects or their fingers into their mouths. Petting zoos and fairs have been associated with infectious disease outbreaks in humans. Those outbreaks have been caused by a number of pathogens, including E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, cryptosporidium and coxiella burnetii.

Since 1991, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has received about 50 reports of human infectious disease outbreaks involving animals in public settings.

North Dakota State University Extension Service veterinarian Charlie Stoltenow and Extension food and nutrition specialist Julie Garden-Robinson urge parents to make sure their children wash their hands properly after leaving a petting zoo or fair where they've come in contact with animals, manure or animal bedding material.

"Hand washing is the most important thing we can do to help prevent ourselves from getting sick or spreading germs to other people," Garden-Robinson says. "This holds true whether we are at a petting zoo or in our kitchen."

However, soap and water might not be available at a petting zoo or fair. In that case, you should make sure your children use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, Garden-Robinson says. Such products are effective against common disease agents such as E. coli, salmonella and campylobacter, but not against certain organisms such as bacterial spores, cryptosporidium and certain viruses.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using a hand sanitizer with a concentration of 60 percent or more alcohol.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are less effective on hands that are visibly soiled, so visible contamination and soil should be removed before using a hand sanitizer.

Here are some hand-washing tips if soap and water are available:

-Use water as hot as you can tolerate comfortably.

-Moisten your hands and add soap. Lather to the elbow if possible.

-Rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds.

-Scrub thoroughly, including the backs of your hands, wrists, between fingers and under fingernails.

-Rinse your hands thoroughly under running water.

-Dry your hands thoroughly with a paper towel or hot air dryer.

-Don't touch anything that will recontaminate your hands. Use a paper towel to turn off the water faucet and open the restroom door if necessary.

Here is some other advice for petting zoo and fair visitors:

-Never eat, drink or put things into your mouth when around animals.

-Older adults, pregnant women and young children should be especially careful around animals.

"People and animals need each other," Stoltenow says. "The interaction between animals and children is a wonderful and lasting experience. We want to make sure that the only things children (and adults) take home with them are memories and the experience, not pathogens and potential disease."