Help kids enjoy and stay healthy around animals this summer

Farm Forum

We are blessed here in the Northern Plains with plenty of opportunities for kids to learn firsthand about animals. Even for kids who don’t live on a farm, visits to a grandparent’s farm, a petting zoo or a county fair can offer chances for kids to touch, pet, and interact with live animals – Experiences they can’t get from TV or books.

Although we perceive South Dakota as a rural state, there are actually more people living in non-rural than rural areas. As a result, fewer and fewer of our children have a concept of what it takes to care for livestock and other animals. Animal welfare and food safety are hot-button issues in our society today, these opportunities for the next generation to relate to animals are critical. That trip to the farm or petting zoo might be the only place some kids ever get to see a calf or a pig.

The occasional downside to these interactions is problems such as infections with e. coli or other germs. You may recall last spring an outbreak of cryptosporidiosis that was associated with a petting zoo at a school in South Dakota. Many children became ill, and a few ended up in the hospital. Infections by other organisms can cause even more severe or even fatal illnesses. Kids have an immune system that isn’t working at full speed yet, making them particularly vulnerable.

E. coli O157:H7 is the most infamous culprit among these germs. All animals and people harbor E. coli in our digestive systems, but only a few strains, such as O157, can potentially make us sick. As this strain grows within an infected person, it produces toxic substances that cause bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and rarely, kidney failure and possibly death.

This germ is troublesome in that it lives in the guts of normal calves, sheep, goats and others, but it causes no illness in them. O157, like all strains of E. coli, is shed from the body in the animal’s manure. Other problem germs such as cryptosporidia and salmonella share this feature. When they somehow enter the digestive tract of people, that’s when the problems can happen.

When it comes to preventing these infections, staying away from the “poop” makes perfect sense. But we also need to realize that germs from animal manure can contaminate the animal’s hair, the pen panels, bedding and the ground in the area.

Little kids have a tendency to put things in their mouths, especially their hands. When they do this after petting an animal or touching corral panels, this “fecal-oral” transmission route is complete. A pacifier or sippy cup used after falling on the ground can make this happen easily as well.

As a parent or grandparent, you can greatly decrease the chance your kids will encounter an infection from the animals they pet. By far, the most important, proven prevention method is for everyone to wash their hands with soap and water upon leaving the animals. Helpful, but not as good as hand-washing, are hand sanitizers. These don’t work well against some germs like cryptosporidia, and when there’s visible contamination on the hands. When you enter the barn, put away the toys, sippy cups, and pacifiers, and keep strollers out of the barn. And of course, watch the kids closely so they don’t put their hands in something that they shouldn’t.

If you’re an adult overseeing animals that kids will come in contact with, provide a place for hand washing that includes soap and water, and encourage their use. Hand sanitizer is okay, but is not as effective as hand washing. Make sure manure is cleaned up promptly and disinfect corral panels where people can contact them.

A young child suffering a life-threatening infection from an animal they petted is an unimaginable tragedy to this father. Thankfully these occurrences are rare. But it would also be a tragedy if these educational experiences for kids had to go away because of the fear of these problems. Luckily, there are effective ways we can prevent this kind of illness. Please take the time this summer to provide your kids with these enriching experiences with animals, and also take the common sense precautions to keep them safe.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension Veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.