A petting zoo (often called, or part of, a "children's zoo") features a combination of domesticated animals and some wild species that are docile enough to touch and feed. In addition to independent petting zoos, also called children's farms or petting farms, many general zoos contain a petting zoo.
Most petting zoos are designed to provide only relatively placid, herbivorous domesticated animals, such as sheep, goats, rabbits, or ponies, to feed and interact physically with safely. This is in contrast to the usual zoo experience, where normally wild animals are viewed from behind safe enclosures where no contact is possible. A few provide wild species (such as pythons or big cat cubs) to interact with, but these are rare and usually found outside Western nations.
During the 1990s, Dutch cities began building petting zoos in many neighborhoods, so that urban children could interact with animals.
Petting zoos feature a variety of domestic animals. Common animals include sheep, guinea pigs, goats, rabbits, ponies, alpacas, llamas, pigs and miniature donkeys, and a few exotic animals such as kangaroos.
Petting zoos are popular with small children, who will often feed the animals. In order to ensure the animals' health, the food is supplied by the zoo, either from vending machines or a kiosk. Food often fed to animals includes grass and crackers, and also in selected feeding areas hay is a common food. Such feeding is an exception to the usual rule about not feeding animals.
Some petting zoos are also mobile and will travel to a home for a children's party or event. Many areas have a qualified mobile petting zoo. One of the first mobile petting zoos in Australia (begun in 1992), was Kindifarm. As a result of its popularity, many Australians use the term kindy farms to describe petting zoos. In Australia, mobile petting zoos are allowed in schools, child care centres and even shopping centres. For many children, a mobile petting zoo is their first opportunity to see and touch an animal.
Touching animals can result in the transmission of diseases between animals and humans (zoonoses) so it is recommended that people should thoroughly wash their hands before and after touching the animals. There have been several outbreaks of E. coli etc.