Six-year-old Madison Conti loves touching the soft animals in the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium's petting pen, but whether or not her grandmother makes her, she intends to wash her hands afterwards.
"They're nice and soft, and they're cute," the New Castle girl said of the four goats and three sheep. "(But) the animals have germs, and you wouldn't want to get sick."
That's just what her grandparents, Jennifer and Anthony Conti, also of New Castle, and zoo and public health officials want Madison and others to remember when visiting petting zoos.
An outbreak of the potentially deadly E. coli bacteria sickened 51 people, mostly children, in the fall of 2000 after they petted the animals at a Montgomery County dairy farm.
The case prompted a state law requiring petting zoos and fair operators to provide convenient hand cleansing and drying facilities effective July 1. The law also requires the posting of signs explaining the risk of catching diseases from animals and the importance of hand washing.
Such outbreaks are rare, but people potentially could catch a host of bacterial, parasitic and viral diseases from animals in petting zoos, officials said.
"Anytime you have children and animals together, there's always the possibility of diseases to hop, and what we're most concerned about is fecal-to-oral transmission," said Dr. Andre Weltman, public health physician with the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
The best safeguard is to wash your hands with soap and water for 30 seconds as soon as leaving the petting pens, officials advise. Many petting zoos, including the one at the Pittsburgh Zoo, now have hand-sanitizers near the exits.
"Effective hand-washing is much better than just using that. It's meant to be used until you can get to a hand-washing station," said Henry Kacprzyk, reptile and Children's Zoo curator for the Pittsburgh Zoo.
But, he said, "most people don't wash their hands effectively."
The zoo tests its animals monthly for zoonotic diseases -- those that can be transmitted from animals to humans, he said.
"There's no 100 percent guarantee, but we do everything we can to make sure our animals are healthy," Kacprzyk said. Wild animals could spread diseases to the animals that are displayed in outdoor pens as could people who work with farm animals, he said.
Katelyn Snyder, 3, was oblivious to the risk of germs during her recent visit to the zoo's petting pen; she even asked one of the goats if she could take him home.
"She'd pet all of (the zoo's animals) if they'd let her," said her father, Ben Snyder, of St. Marys. He and his wife worried about the risk of diseases, though, and were heading to the hand-sanitizer to clean off her hands.
"Little kids have a tendency to put their hands in their mouth," he said. "You don't know what they're putting in there."
In the Montgomery County outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those who bought food from the outdoor concession or bit their nails were more likely to get sick.
While saying that hand-washing proved to be 95 percent effective, the CDC said, "Hand-washing facilities lacked soap and disposable towels, were out of children's reach, were few in number and were unsupervised."
Guillermo Cole, Allegheny County Health Department spokesman, said, "We've been fortunate here in Allegheny County. As far as we know, there hasn't been any outbreaks linked to petting zoos."
Wash your hands!The Allegheny County Health Department gives this advice for reducing the risk of catching diseases from animals at petting zoos: