Hand washing averts petting farm illnesses

Hand washing averts petting farm illnesses

Following a number of outbreaks of diarrhoea illnesses this year, public health experts in England are warning people about the need for good hand hygiene when visiting petting farms.

The authorities are keen to put out this warning ahead of the summer holidays. Visits to petting farms peak during school and public holidays.

According to Public Health England (PHE), between January and May this year, there have been 12 outbreaks of cryptosporidiosis linked to petting farm visits across England. In total around 130 people have been affected.

For the last 20 years, the average number of cryptosporidium cases per year linked to petting farm visits reported to the English authorities has been around 80.

This is in the context of over 2 million visits to over 1,000 UK petting farms.

Bob Adak, PHE's head of gastrointestinal diseases, says in a statement:

"Visiting a farm is a very enjoyable experience for both children and adults alike but it's important to remember that contact with farm animals carries a risk of infection because of the microorganisms - or germs - they naturally carry."

Common Infections that Can Be Picked Up From Petting Farms

The three most common bugs that you can pick up from petting farms are Cryptosporidium, E. coli and Salmonella.

All three bugs live in the gut of farm animals and you can pick them up either through touching the animals directly or touching animal droppings or places that have been contaminated by animal droppings.

The bugs then infect you when you touch your face, put your fingers in your mouth, or touch your food or your food container before washing your hands thoroughly (with soap and water).

You could also inadvertently pass the infection onto someone else if you touch their face or their food: something parents carrying small children need to be aware of.


Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite (protozoa) that causes a diarrhoeal illness known as cryptosporidiosis.

It can be found in soil, water, food, or any surface that has been contaminated with human or animal stools.

Young children are most likely to become infected.

The symptoms of cryptosporidiosis are typically watery diarrhoea, stomach pains and vomiting. They usually last for about two weeks, sometimes a little longer. Symptoms are more severe in people with weakened immune systems.

There is no specific treatment and the illness usually goes away by itself. It is important to drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.

E. coli

E. coli is a bacterium commonly found in the gut of most people and animals. There are many different strains of the bacterium, and many of them cause no harm.

But there are a few types of E. coli that cause illness, ranging from mild to severe, as in the case of VTEC O157.

An infection with E. coli can cause gastroenteritis with symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting, fever and abdominal pain.

In serious cases of infection with VTEC O157 the diarrhoea is bloody and can result in very severe, sometimes fatal disease, although these cases are very rare. Most people make a full recovery from a VTEC O157 infection.

Cases of E. coli linked to farm visits are at their highest between June and October says PHE.

Cattle are usually the most important source of VTEC O157 in the UK, but it has also been found in the stools of deer, rabbits, pigs, horses, and other animals, including wild birds.


Salmonella is a group of bacteria that live in the gut of many farm animals and can affect meat, eggs, poultry, and milk.

It causes a type of food poisoning known as salmonellosis. Symptoms include diarrhoea and stomach cramps, that are sometimes accompanied by vomiting and fever.

Most people recover without treatment, but if you become very dehydrated you may develop more severe symptoms and need hospital care to stop them becoming life-threatening.

Young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of becoming severely ill.

Hand Washing to Avoid Illness When Visiting Petting Farms

Visiting a petting farm is a fun and educational thing to do for children and adults alike.

However, there is also a risk of infection, which you can minimize by taking sensible precautions.

Thus when visiting a petting farm, make sure you and your group wash hands thoroughly with soap and water at the end of the visit (some advise you should do this a few times during the visit too).

It is especially important to wash your hands before eating: even if you have not handled any animals, you may still have come into contact with infected surfaces like fences, posts and handrails.

You can see dirt on your hands, but you can't see the millions of bacteria harbouring on them.

PHE also warns that hand gels and wipes are not effective protection against the sort of germs found on farms.

Adults should also keep a close eye on children and make sure they wash their hands properly as they are more at risk of serious illness.

PHE urges owners and managers of farm attractions to follow the industry code of practice, and also teachers and organizers of farm tours to read and follow the relevant guidance.

It is also important that signs reminding visitors to wash their hands are clear, large and well-placed.

Top Tips for Avoiding Illness On Farm Visits

  • Avoid touching face or putting fingers in your mouth.
  • Do not kiss farm animals.
  • Do not let children put their faces close to farm animals, no matter how cute they may seem.
  • After touching animals, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water (soap up to a lather, scrub well, and rinse off with running water).
  • Even if you have not touched animals do this: you may have touched contaminated surfaces, such as fences and posts.
  • Don't eat or drink while touching animals, or walking around the farm.
  • Eat and drink only after you have washed your hands, and only in designated areas like cafes and picnic sites.
  • After the visit, remove and clean boots and shoes, and make sure you clean pushchair wheels. Then wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
Adapted from Public Health England

Also, if you are planning to visit the seaside, you may find the same advice will come in useful. A few years ago, scientists carried out research that showed washing your hands after digging in beach sand could greatly reduce your risk of ingesting microbes that cause gastrointestinal illnesses.

Farms, Fairs, and Fun – Be sure to wash your hands (Video Medical And Professional 2020).

Section Issues On Medicine: Disease