By Diane Wright Hirsch, UConn Extension Educator
Farm animals poop. Why should that matter to me…a frequent farm visitor?
We all poop. Dogs poop, cats poop, cows and even goats poop. It is a natural process that rids our bodies of indigestible food and waste products. Unfortunately, it is also a way to carry pathogens (the kind of germs that make us sick) out of our intestines.
E. coli O157:H7 is one of those pathogens. The O157:H7 is only one strain or serotype of the Escherichia coli bacteria family. In fact most E. coli are not harmful to humans and are found living comfortably in our intestinal tract.
However, E. coli O157:H7 can cause an intestinal disease in humans that can have disastrous consequences. Symptoms of this disease include watery or bloody diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea, and vomiting. The illness can be mild to severe. Many food-borne illnesses share these symptoms, so the unaware may simply ignore them or write them off as a 24-hour bug. But, in the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, the result of an infection with O157:H7 can lead to severe problems—including kidney failure—and even death.
So why should this matter to a farm visitor who may wander up to a goat or sheep or cow, hug them, pet them, even kiss them? The problem is that this human pathogen can be present in the intestinal tract of these animals. They may shed the bacteria in their poop, but still appear healthy and clean. The bacteria can easily contaminate the animals’ skin, fur, feathers, and the areas where they live and roam. If the goats or cows are producing milk that is consumed unpasteurized or their milk is being made into an unpasteurized cheese, then these food products could also carry the pathogen.
There is something you can do to protect yourself and your family. When visiting a farm, a petting zoo, or even a county fair, always look for a hand washing facility after sharing some face time with the animals. While a hand sanitizer may provide a minimal amount of protection, pathogens like these require the full hand wash treatment. Rinse hands under running warm water, soap and scrub hands for at least 30 seconds, to create a good amount of lather, including between fingers, under finger nails and up past the wrists, then rinse with warm water. If the farm does not have a hand wash station or public bathroom facility, maybe you should visit a different farm.
For more information, visit the Centers for Disease Control at: http://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/diseases/ecoli.html