Petting zoos harbour highly virulent drug-resistant bacteria

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Petting Zoo
Petting zoos could transmit highly virulent drug-resistant bacteria to visitors Medibulletin Photo

Petting zoos could transmit highly virulent drug-resistant bacteria to visitors, especially children

New research shows that petting zoos can create a diverse reservoir of multidrug resistant (MDR) bacteria, which could lead to highly virulent drug-resistant pathogens being passed on to visitors. The findings were presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

The study aimed to explore the frequency, transmission and risk factors for animals in petting zoos becoming colonised by MDR bacteria. Petting zoos are a popular attraction around the world, allowing direct and indirect exposure of both children and adults to a diverse range of animal species. They are different from regular zoos because they allow direct interaction with animals by holding and petting them.

Extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) and AmpC-producing Enterobacteriaceae (AmpC-E), which are resistant to a number of commonly used antibiotics, have become a matter of great concern in both human and veterinary medicine.

The majority (77%) of the MDR bacteria were obtained from faeces, with the remaining 23% coming from skin, fur, or feathers. A quarter of those animals which tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria were colonised by more than one bacterial strain

The study included 8 randomly chosen petting zoos in Israel and samples of faecal matter as well as from the body surface (skin, fur, or feathers) were studied from 228 animals belonging to 42 different species. Genetic sequencing was used to identify both the species of bacteria in each sample, and the presence of ESBL and AmpC drug resistance genes.

The study found 12% of the animals to be colonised with at least one ESBL/AmpC-producing bacterial strain, with 35 different recovered species of bacteria. The majority (77%) of the MDR bacteria were obtained from faeces, with the remaining 23% coming from skin, fur, or feathers. A quarter of those animals which tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria were colonised by more than one bacterial strain. Among the bacterial strains identified, were the highly virulent E. coli ST656, which causes travellers’ diarrhoea, and E. coli ST127; a frequent cause of urinary tract infections in humans.

Professor Navon-Venezia of Ariel University, Israel, lead author of the study 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.”

She added: “Immediate actions by zoo operators should include installation of handwashing stations to ensure proper hand washing before and after petting animals, prohibiting food and drinking near animals, and also not allowing petting of animals receiving antibiotic treatment.”