K-State veterinarian outlines safety guidelines for kids handling animals
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
MANHATTAN — Do you have kids who love to find frogs and turtles in the wild or snuggle with baby chicks and ducklings? Kansas State University veterinarians say it's great to encourage children to become interested in animals at a young age, but there are certain precautions and guidelines you should know.
"We want kids to be excited about animals, but it's really important for parents to remember that safety should always come first," said Kate KuKanich, associate professor of internal medicine in the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine. "We want to make sure all of these experiences that kids have with animals are safe, healthy and positive experiences, which is why everyone should follow the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention recommendations about interacting with animals."
According to the CDC, parents should closely monitor which animals young kids come into contact with, and kids under the age of 5 should not be allowed to touch reptiles like turtles, snakes and lizards; amphibians like frogs, toads, salamanders and newts; and young poultry like chicks, ducklings and goslings. All of these animals are carriers and shedders of salmonella, which can cause illness in children and immunosuppressed adults.
"Salmonella is so common in reptiles that reports have shown that more than 90 percent of our reptiles may be carrying and shedding the bacteria — and they often don't show symptoms," KuKanich said. "Having young children wash their hands after petting the animal isn't enough protection from salmonella because of the possibility of cross-contamination. Children who pet these animals often have risky behaviors, such as wiping their hands on their shirt, pants or the counter, or putting their hands in their mouth before washing. All of these actions can lead to the spread of the bacteria and ultimately, illness."
More than 70,000 people become sick from salmonella through contact with reptiles each year in the U.S., with the main signs of salmonellosis being fever and bloody diarrhea.
"It's just not worth the risk of letting toddlers handle, pet or even be in the same room with these animals," KuKanich said.
That doesn't mean animals can't be part of young children's lives. Kukanich says some fun animals that young kids can learn about and safely pet — as long as these animals are healthy — include pocket pets, adult dogs and cats, and adult farm animals.
Petting zoos and farms can provide an excellent opportunity for children to learn and interact with animals. A recent study from KuKanich; Gonzalo Erdozain, a 2014 Kansas State University Doctor of Veterinary Medicine graduate; and colleagues found three main ways to reduce the risk of transmission of infection in these settings: knowing the risks involved with interacting with animals, including the potential diseases and how they spread; taking the proper sanitary measure of washing your hands; and being aware of risky behaviors that could lead to illness.
"Young kids are more prone to risky behaviors around animals, such as putting their hands in their mouths right after petting an animal or letting a pacifier touch an animal before going into their mouth," Erdozain said. "Parents and teachers should supervise kids closely to minimize these behaviors, encourage hand-washing and help ensure all animal encounters are safe as well as fun."
Previous research by Erdozain, KuKanich and colleagues found that of 574 visitors attending petting zoos in Kansas and Missouri, only 37 percent attempted any kind of hand hygiene.
"Think about how many kids pick up a turtle or toad they find in the yard and then don't wash their hands immediately after handling the animal," Erdozain said. "Properly washing your hands is the best way to decrease the chances of getting sick after petting or handling an animal."
Proper hand-washing includes wetting hands, applying soap, rubbing for at least 15 seconds, rinsing with a significant flow of running water and drying with paper towels — not on clothes. KuKanich suggests teaching kids to sing a song while washing their hands to ensure they wash long enough.
The study, "Best Practices for Planning Events Encouraging Human-Animal Interactions," was published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health. Authors include Erdozain; KuKanich; Ben Chapman, North Carolina State University; and Doug Powell, Powell Food Safety.