Could your farm make a visitor sick?

Farm Forum

Summer vacation season is already here. As soon as the beans are planted and the pairs are out to pasture, farm families feel better about getting away to a vacation destination.

I’d venture that many of your own farms become vacation destinations of sorts as well, with summer visits from siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. For city-dwelling friends and relatives, your farm can be a great place to reconnect with their roots and see how their food is produced. Kids especially love to interact with the calves, horses, sheep, and goats that call your farm home.

While I know firsthand how great these experiences can be, I also sometimes find myself in the position of being a handwringing worrier about these encounters. A recent statewide project we did looked at some common human diseases that could potentially come from farm animals. In particular, we examined the intestinal diseases cryptosporidiosis and E. coli O157 colibacillosis. Between 20 and 30 percent of the people reported sick from those illnesses indicated they had visited a farm in the days prior to the illness. This brought up the real possibility that some of them may have gotten sick from germs found on an innocent visit to a farm.

It should be said that the project wasn’t designed to pinpoint the exact cause of each of those illnesses; they can be caught in multiple ways. Cryptosporidiosis can be picked up in swimming pools. E. coli O157 can be obtained from food sources. But animals are potential sources as well, and ones that you should keep in mind when hosting visitors this summer.

Many of you are saying, what’s the fuss? I’ve been around animals all my life and have never been sick. Consider your daily animal exposure a way of “vaccinating” yourself against the adverse effects of those germs. Your occasional visitors don’t have that prior exposure. It takes a lot fewer of those germs to cause them to become ill.

These diseases, as well as illnesses caused by Campylobacter and Salmonella, have some similarities. They create havoc with a person’s digestive tract: diarrhea, cramps, and vomiting are the common symptoms (E. coli O157 can also result in more severe problems like kidney failure in a small percentage of those infected). It usually takes several (1-7) days for these germs to cause symptoms. When people get sick several days afterwards, they might not make the connection between the farm visit and their illness.

The animal sources for these germs are manure, oftentimes from animals that appear healthy. Certain animals serve as more frequent sources for these illnesses. Cryptosporidiosis is common in calves between a week and a month of age. E. coli O157 is more of an issue in feedlot cattle.

While you could just tell people not to visit (an option you’d probably like to employ with that obnoxious brother-in-law!), common sense practices during and after the visit are all that’s necessary to avoid animal-related illnesses. These steps simply make sure germs from manure don’t make their way from the animal to a person’s mouth. Realize that manure germs are often in not-so-visible places: an animal’s hair coat, on corral panels, and feeding equipment. Keeping the germs from traveling out with your visitor is the key. If walking through animal pens, have some rubber boots for visitors to slip on. If petting the animals is on the agenda, have some coveralls handy. Make sure those items stay in the barn or outside: we don’t want dirty boots and coveralls to drag germs back into the house or a vehicle. Consider setting a good example yourself by taking those same precautions.

By far the most important disease prevention step is for visitors to wash hands with soap and water the first chance they get after touching animals or their surroundings. This is another way of leaving the germs behind. Hand sanitizers are good, but hand-washing is more effective.

I hope you open up your farm to visitors this summer. It’s a great way to help people understand the hard work it takes to put food on their table. Make sure you take these few simple steps to help them stay healthy during their visit.

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.