They can be as soft as a puppy or as slimy as a snake, but all types of animals can carry diseases that can get people sick. While kids can get ill after visiting a petting zoo, they can get sick from pets, too.

Children under 5 years old and those with asthma are most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Young children’s immune systems are still developing, they aren’t great at washing their hands, and they are more likely to put their fingers in their mouth after touching an animal.

Families with young children should not keep turtles, frogs, chickens, mice or hamsters as pets. Even if an animal looks clean and healthy, it still may carry disease.

Symptoms of illness caused by contact with animals include fever, trouble breathing, lack of appetite, vomiting, swelled stomach and bloody diarrhea.

Follow these guidelines to lower your child’s risk for infection:

  • Don’t prepare or eat food around animals.

  • Do not kiss animals or hold them close to your mouth.

  • Wash hands well after touching animals, their cages, food or feces (stool). Adults should supervise children when washing their hands. Use soap and water, and pay special attention to the creases of the hand and underneath the fingernails.

  • Keep children away from pet food, and make sure to feed your animals outside the kitchen.

  • Monitor the pets in your home for illness.

© 2013 American Academy of Pediatrics. This Parent Plus may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.