Hand washing is the most important step a person can take to reduce the risk of contracting a disease after coming into contact with animals in a public setting, such as a pet store, according to a report released today by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians Inc. (NASPHV).
While human-animal contact has many benefits, NASPHV notes in the report that an inadequate understanding of disease transmission and animal behavior can increase the likelihood of infectious diseases, rabies exposures, injuries and other health problems among visitors, especially children.
Infections with intestinal bacteria and parasites pose the highest risk for human disease, according to the Nashville, Tenn., organization. The risk for human infection can be increased by factors and behaviors such as hand-to-mouth activities such as thumb sucking, eating, using pacifiers) and by the layout and maintenance of facilities.
Hand washing, the report states, is the most important prevention step for reducing disease transmission. Hands should always be washed immediately after exiting animal areas, after removing soiled clothing or shoes, and before eating or drinking.
The design of facilities and animal pens should minimize the risk associated with animal contact by encouraging hand washing. Hand-washing facilities should be accessible by children, adults and persons with disabilities and be conveniently located in transitional areas between animal and non-animal areas. If soap and water are not available, NASPHV recommends using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
The design of a facility also should prevent humans from coming into contact with animals or contaminated surfaces except in specified areas. The report provides guidelines for managing the contact between humans and specific animals, including fish, birds, dogs, cats, small animals, reptiles and amphibians.
The risk for disease or injury from animal contact can be reduced by carefully managing the animals themselves, according to the report. Venue operators should monitor animals daily for signs of illness, and they should retain and use the services of a licensed veterinarian. Ill animals should not be used in exhibits, according to the report.
Experience from disease outbreaks suggests that visitors knowledgeable about potential risks are less likely to become ill, according to the report. Therefore, NASPHV finds education to be essential in reducing risks associated with human-animal contact. The organization recommends that venue operators:
• Become knowledgeable about the risks for disease and injury associated with animals and be able to explain risk-reduction measures to staff and visitors;
• Develop or obtain training and educational materials and train staff;
• Ensure that visitors receive educational messages before they enter an exhibit;
• Provide information in a simple and easy-to-understand format that is age and language appropriate;
• Provide information in multiple formats (e.g. stickers, sings, and handouts); and
• Consult with veterinarians, public health officials or other professionals.
To read the report in its entirety, click here.