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Kids and Animals


Dear Dr. Lanny:
My kids, ages 3 and 6, love petting zoos, the State Fair, farms—anywhere they can get up close to animals. We try to keep the children cleaned up, but sometimes it’s a challenge to wipe off their hands or get them to use hand sanitizer. Do we need to be more careful about letting the kids get in contact with animals?

A: Many years ago when I began my pediatric training, my boss, Dr. Frank “The Crank” Oski, an otherwise exceedingly bright man, railed against humans and animals living together. He would go on at length about the diseases carried by our animal friends. This behavior continued until, at the behest of his wife, Barbara, a very bright woman, they animal-sat for a friend’s dog. As you might guess, Frank became enamored of the dog, was reluctant to return him to his rightful owners and mended his evil ways.

In my opinion, the benefits of interacting with an animal, whether you are a child or a cranky adult, so far outweigh the possible negatives that there is almost no question to discuss.

Dealing with animals, whether as household pets, in petting zoos, or even for the environmentally concerned hunter, gives us greater connection, and, I believe, greater respect for the creatures we share the planet with. There is a wonder in the eyes of a child upon approaching a type of animal with which he or she is unfamiliar that has value well beyond the moment it takes place.

Growing up with a pet is an overwhelmingly positive experience, but, as with almost anything in life, there are potential risks.


First and foremost among the risks are bites. There are an estimated 75 million dogs in the United States. Approximately 5 million bites are reported annually, nearly a million of which require some medical attention. Undoubtedly, there are many more bites that are not reported. In at least three-quarters of the cases, the biting dog belonged to the family or a friend. Statistics on which breed of dog may bite are difficult to come by, but it is safe to say that if your pit bull or mastiff is having a bad day the results are likely to be much worse than if your Chihuahua is in a snit.

Although cat bites are many fewer in number than dog bites, they tend to be on the hands and lead much more frequently to significant infection. Petting zoos obviously are careful to choose gentle animals and attempt to minimize any chance of a toothy encounter.

Small rodents, such as mice, rats and gerbils, as well as rabbits, ferrets, snakes and iguanas may be kept as pets and may bite as well. These various animals represent a small portion of household pets and statistically are not a significant problem.

An inclusive list of infectious diseases transmissible by household pets and farm animals likely found in petting zoos would be extensive and, frankly, kind of scary. Some well-known afflictions include cat scratch fever (usually transmitted by kittens), toxoplasmosis, ringworm and flea bites. In the 1970s, small pet turtles were responsible for more than a quarter of a million annual cases of salmonella gastroenteritis, a very nasty intestinal disease. Outlawing the sale of turtles less than 4 inches in diameter, which could fit in a child’s mouth (yuck) largely eliminated this epidemic.

Petting zoos and pet ownership have both pluses and minuses. From childhood through old age, interactions with animals bring education, excitement, companionship and joy to people. I believe you should accept that problems, small and not so small, can ensue. You minimize the potential problems by choosing a pet wisely, treating it humanely and teaching your children the same.

When you go to the petting zoo, look at the animals (and the people who are caring for them). Do they look healthy? Are they missing clumps of fur or do they have obvious skin rashes? Do the animals seem bright and alert? If the answers to these questions are positive, by all means let your children enjoy the moment. And sure, bring along some hand cleanser.

Dr. Alan Freshman, father of two grown boys, practices at Syracuse Pediatrics. Consult your own physician before making decisions about your family’s health care. Send e-mail to him at editorial@familytimes.biz.

Spiders and Insects

I’d like to devote a few words to the subject of spiders and insects. In my experience parents blame spiders for a large proportion of bites on their children, but no one ever sees the spider in the act. Spiders eat mosquitoes, not people. Can any creature that eats mosquitoes be bad?

Yes, the black widow and the brown recluse can indeed cause serious injury, but they are not usually in our part of the country, and they don’t come looking for trouble. Spiders may be creepy, but they are really our friends.

This spring at least a half-dozen parents brought our pediatrics practice ticks—some dead and some not. And this year, for the first time, the Onondaga County Health Department says that Lyme disease is being found locally in humans, rather than being imported from downstate or other areas. New York state provides a tick identification service that tells the doctor if a tick is the species able to transmit Lyme disease. This service also estimates how long a tick has been attached to a host. If attached for less than 24 hours, transmission of disease is very unlikely.

Although ticks are not pets, our outdoor dogs and cats can transport them to us.

For more information click here.

– Dr. Alan Freshman

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