Petting zoos may be crawling with drug-resistant bacteria, putting kids at risk

AMSTERDAM — Perhaps petting zoos are better off just being “looking” zoos. A new study finds that petting zoos may be teeming with various forms of multi-drug resistant (MDR) bacteria, putting visitors — particularly children — at risk of going home with dangerous pathogens on their skin and clothing.

Researchers from Ariel University in Israel randomly chose eight petting zoos across the country and collected samples of fecal matter and swabs of skin, fur, or feathers of 228 animals across 42 species. In particular, scientists looked for two types of bacteria — extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) and AmpC-producing Enterobacteriaceae (AmpC-E) — which are found among animals and known to be resistant to common antibiotics.

The authors found that nearly 1 in 8 animals (12%) were found to be colonized with at least one of the two antibiotic-resistant bacterial strains, with 35 different recovered species of bacteria. A quarter of animals that tested positive for the drug-resistant bacteria were colonized by more than one bacterial strain, including two E. coli strains known to cause travelers’ diarrhea and urinary tract infections.

Most of the MDR bacteria (77%) came from the fecal samples, with the rest found on the skin, fur, or feather samples taken from animals.

Researchers concluded that children who visit petting zoos are at great risk of picking up these pathogens as the facilities are primed for harboring harmful bacterial strains.

“Our findings demonstrate that animals in petting zoos can result in shedding and transmission of MDR pathogens that may cause illness for human visitors, even when the animals appear healthy,” says Shiri Navon-Venezia, a professor at Ariel University and co-author of the study, in a statement. “We recognize the high educational and emotional value of petting zoos for children, therefore, we strongly recommend that petting zoo management teams implement a strict hygiene and infection control policy, together with rationalized antibiotic policy, in order to reduce the risk of transmission between animals and visitors.”

Navon-Venezia says zoos should install hand-washing stations for animal exhibit, and ban visitors from eating or drinking near the animals. Visitors should also be barred from touching animals receiving antibiotic treatments, as the authors found those animals were seven times more likely to shed MDR bacteria.

The findings are being presented at the 2019 European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Amsterdam, Netherlands.