The danger hidden in petting zoos and gerbil cages


Small animals are cute and cuddly; most children love to play with them. A trip to a petting zoo is a popular outing for families with young children, and parents who permit children to keep a little animal, such as a gerbil, as a caged pet are perceived as loving and caring. So what's the matter with this charming picture? The threat of contracting salmonellosis or Escherichia coli infection, that's what.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a warning about pet rodents after an investigation traced 15 Salmonella infections over two years to contact with mice, rats, hamsters, and other rodents purchased at pet stores. Approximately half of these recent infections involved children 16 years and younger. The CDC isn't so harsh as to advise that these animals be banned from households; it did urge parents, however, to ensure that their child wash his hands after playing with pets.

And in April, six farm animals at a Florida petting zoo were identified as the source of a strain of E coli that put 26 people (mostly children) in the hospital. All animals at the zoo have been quarantined, and parents of two of the hospitalized children are suing for damages. The CDC has posted safety advice for visitors and proprietors of petting zoos on its Web site (

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