Visiting a farm is an enjoyable and educational experience, however animals can carry a number of infections that can be harmful to people.

Common types of illness include infection with cryptosporidium parvum, e.coli O157 and salmonella. Individual cases of illness and outbreaks linked to petting farms have been reported in North Yorkshire.

All of these bacteria live in the gut of the animals, so people can get infected on farms mainly in two ways - either by touching animals in the petting and feeding areas or by coming into contact with animal droppings on contaminated surfaces around the farm. These harmful bacteria can get accidentally passed to your mouth by putting hands on faces or fingers in mouths before washing them thoroughly. It only takes a small number of the bacteria to cause infection.

Dos and Don'ts when visiting a farm

Do  Don't
Do check that cuts, grazes etc. on children's hands are covered with waterproof dressings. Don't put hands on faces or fingers in mouths while petting animals or walking round the farm.

Do wash your hands thoroughly with liquid soap and warm water and dry with paper towels:

  • After you have touched animals, fences or other surfaces in animal areas; and
  • Before eating or drinking.
Don't kiss farm animals or allow children to put their faces close to animals.
Do remove and clean boots or shoes that might have become soiled and clean pushchair wheels. Then wash your hands thoroughly with liquid soap and warm water and dry with paper towels. Don't eat or drink while touching animals or walking round the farm. This includes not eating sweets, crisps or chewing gum.
Do supervise children closely to ensure that they wash their hands thoroughly. Don't taste or eat any animal foods or unpasteurised produce, such as milk or cheese.
Do eat and drink in picnic areas or cafés only. Don't eat anything that has fallen on the floor.
  Don't use handrubs or wipes instead of washing hands with liquid soap and warm water. Handrubs and wipes do not remove E. coli O157 in dirt.

If anyone is sick or has diarrhoea within two weeks after a farm visit contact your doctor or call NHS 111 as soon as possible. If anyone, particularly a young child has bloody diarrhoea, seek immediate emergency medical attention.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women who come into close contact with sheep during lambing or other farm animals that are giving birth may risk their own health, and that of their unborn child, from infections that such animals can carry. Although the number of human pregnancies affected by contact with an infected animal is extremely small, it is important that pregnant women are aware of the potential risks and take appropriate precautions. These risks are not only associated with sheep, nor confined only to the spring (when the majority of lambs are born). Cattle and goats that have recently given birth can also carry similar infections.

To avoid the possible risk of infection:

  • Pregnant women should not help ewes to lamb, or to provide assistance with a cow that is calving or a nanny goat that is kidding;
  • Pregnant women should avoid contact with aborted or new-born lambs, calves or kids or with the afterbirth, birthing fluids or materials (e.g. bedding) contaminated by such birth products;
  • Pregnant women should ensure contacts or partners who have attended lambing ewes or other animals giving birth take appropriate health and hygiene precautions, including the wearing of personal protective equipment and perform good hand hygiene to remove any potential contamination; and
  • Pregnant women should avoid handling (including washing) clothing, boots or any materials that may have come into contact with animals that have recently given birth, their young or afterbirths. Potentially contaminated clothing will be safe to handle after being washed at the highest temperature recommended by the manufacturer.

Public health factsheet

Other useful sources of information