New data shows petting zoos crawl with superbugs, potentially putting more kids at risk

Recent research found that petting zoo animals could spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including two strains of E-coli. (Photo: Getty Images)

The E. coli bacteria blamed in the death of a 2-year-old boy and the sickness of three other children who visited animals at a San Diego County Fair in June has shocked and saddened parents.

Kids love to pet animals and new research finds a danger lurking among all that cute fur.

The exact source of the bacteria is still under investigation in California, but all four of the children, ages 2 to 13, visited the “animal areas or the petting zoo,” the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency reported. Three children didn’t need hospitalization. The toddler, Jedidiah King Cabezuela, died from E. coli complications that caused damage and inflammation in his kidneys, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

A recent investigation into petting zoos found that the animals could share with children dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including two strains of E-coli. The findings were presented in April at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases in Amsterdam.

“Our findings demonstrate that animals in petting zoos can result in shedding and transmission of MDR (multidrug-resistant) pathogens that may cause illness for human visitors, even when the animals appear healthy,” study author Shiri Navon-Venezia, a professor of microbiology at Ariel University in Israel, said in a statement.

Petting zoos pass on superbugs  

Researchers in Israel collected 382 samples of poop, skin, fur and feathers from more than 200 animals who lived in eight petting zoos in the country. They tested the samples for bacteria resistant to multiple classes of antibiotics.

The researchers were particularly interested in multidrug-resistant bacteria known as extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) Enterobacteriaceae and AmpC-producing Enterobacteriaceae (AmpC-E). These bacteria can cause skin infections, pneumonia, digestive issues, urinary tract infections and sepsis in humans.

Researchers in Israel found drug-resistant bacteria strains on petting zoo animals. (Photo: Getty Images)

Researchers found about 12% of the animals sampled had at least one multidrug-resistant strain of bacteria living on them, and a quarter of those animals had more than one. 

Animals that were treated with antibiotics were seven times more likely to pass the multidrug-resistant bacteria on to other animals.

The research team only looked at petting zoos in Israel, so their results might not expressly equate to other countries.

More deaths linked to contact with animals

But that doesn’t mean American parents should relax.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 2010 to 2015, there were more than 100 outbreaks of illness that began at petting zoos, fairs and educational farms.

E. coli, salmonella, which causes diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps, and cryptosporodium, a parasite that causes diarrhea, are the most common reported illnesses passed from animals to humans. 

In 2016, an Indiana mom shared that her 2-year-old son died after visiting a petting zoo at the Indiana State Fair and contracting E. coli, although the exact source of the infection was not determined. A 20-month-old in Maine died of E. coli complications after visiting a county fair petting zoo. The family of a North Carolina 2-year-old sued a petting zoo in 2013 after he died from an E. coli infection.

Children 5 and younger, people with weakened immune systems and those 65 and older are most vulnerable to the germs animals carry, and should take extra precautions at animal exhibits, the CDC advises.

Navon-Venezia says earlier research showed that petting zoos help children with their social, emotional and cognitive development. But in light of her research, she advocates that petting zoos isolate animals on antibiotics.

Keeping kids safe around animals

In the meantime, the CDC recommends parents take these steps to protect their children:

Soap and water is the best defense against dangerous bacteria found at petting zoos. (Photo: Getty Images)

Wash your hands.  Even if you don’t touch an animal you can still get sick. Running water and soap are best, but if they are not available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol, and wash hands with soap and running water as soon as possible. 

  • Separate food and animals. Don’t eat or drink near animals.
  • Leave strollers, pacifiers, cups and toys outside the exhibit.
  • Don’t let children put their thumbs, fingers or objects (like pacifiers) in their mouths. Watch children at all times.  
  • Do not let children put their fingers or objects near an animal’s mouth. It doesn’t matter if the animal seems friendly. 
  • Don’t let children sit or play on the ground in animal areas.
  • Children 5 or younger should avoid contact with reptiles, amphibians or live poultry, because these animals are more likely to make them sick.

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