‘Petting zoos are breeding grounds for lethal bugs’Study of attractions shows more than a tenth of animals carried bacteria resistant to antibiotics

By Henry Bodkin, Health Correspondent

PETTING zoos are becoming breeding grounds for potentially lethal bugs, tests have shown, as parents are warned their children could be at risk from drug-resistant E. coli.

A study of eight attractions found that more than one in 10 animals were carrying strains of “highly virulent” bacteria against which standard antibiotics are useless.

Petting zoos and show farms attract more than 12 million visitors a year in the UK and are hugely popular with parents and teachers as a means of educating children.

‘Animals in petting zoos can result in transmission of MDR pathogens’

However, keepers were last night warned to improve hygiene on the sites in order to protect children in the face of the growing threat from antimicrobial-resistance (AMR).

Decades of profligate use of antibiotics in both human and animal healthcare, combined with a dearth of new medicines, has led to a rise of bacterial strains that have genetically mutated in order to overcome the drugs.

The Government has warned that, unless brought under control, the problem could return medicine to the “dark ages” by rendering treatable infections and routine surgery lethal once more.

The new study by Ariel University in Israel, which examined eight petting zoos, found that animals were seven times more likely to be colonised with drug-resistant bacteria if they had been treated with antibiotics.

Animals undergoing treatment for illness are commonly removed from public display in petting zoos.

However, Dr Ben Swift, a research fellow in antimicrobial resistance at the Royal Veterinary College, told The Sunday Telegraph the same precautions are often not taken with animals that are given antibiotics prophylactically.

“AMR is not well understood in petting zoos,” he said. “There is a risk and it needs to be better known. It needs to be drilled into the public’s mind.”

The Farm Attractions Network, which represents petting zoos, has extensive codes of practice advising members how to limit the transfer of pathogens. However, these do not mention AMR. The organisation said keeping animals clean and healthy in the first place was essential.

The Ariel University team took samples of faecal matter and skin, fur or feathers from 228 animals belonging to 42 species. Genetic sequencing was used to identify the species of bacteria and to determine which were likely to be antibiotic-resistant. Twelve per cent of the animals were found to be colonised with resistant strains, and more than a quarter who tested positive were carrying multiple strains.

Among these were a highly virulent E. coli ST656, which causes travellers’ diarrhoea, as well as E.coli ST127, which is a cause of UTIs in humans.

Prof Shiri Navon-Venezia, who led the research, said: “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. We recognise 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 rationalised antibiotic policy, in order to reduce the risk of transmission between animals and visitors.

“Immediate actions by zoo operators should include installation of handwashing stations, prohibiting food and drinking near animals, and also not allowing petting of animals receiving antibiotic treatment.”

The National Farm Attractions Network said the recommendations are “already well-established practices in the farm attractions sector in the UK”.

The study is being presented today at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases in Amsterdam.

Grahame White