Chances are you've heard of the dangers that petting zoos and cute animals at country fairs can pose to kids, and that you should wash your child's hands as soon as humanly possible after he touches the sheep, goats or other creatures. The risk: Ingesting bacteria such as salmonella or E. coli.

A recent death reminds us of the potential perils. After a September visit to a county fair, 21-month-old Colton Guay of Maine came down with hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a disease caused by E. coli. He later died. Guay's father, Jon Guay, believes his son was exposed to the deadly bacteria while petting farm animals.

Guay wasn’t the only child who may have become seriously ill at the Oxford County Fair, the Maine Sun Journal reports. Another toddler is in intensive care at Maine Medical Center battling HUS, according to a post on his father’s Facebook page.

A spokesman for the Maine Center for Disease Control told the Maine Sun Journal an investigation is in progress.

Related: 9 Surprising Places Salmonella Bacteria Lurk

The E. coli-animal connection

The large and diverse group of bacteria known as E. coli is found in the intestines of animals, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some kinds can cause diarrhea, while others can cause urinary tract infections, respiratory illness and pneumonia.

HUS, in which red blood cells are destroyed and then clog the filtering system in the kidneys, is caused by a particular strain of E. coli, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can lead to life-threatening kidney failure. In Guay's case, the disease attacked his brain. “It began with severe diarrhea and ended with massive brain seizures that ultimately took his life,” Guay's father wrote in a Facebook post.

Most cases of HUS develop in young children, but the Mayo Clinic says adults also can develop the condition, though the cause in adults may be certain medications or another type of infection. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, pale skin, fatigue, fever, blood in the urine or decreased urination, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Related: Hospital Visitors: How to Stay Safe While Visiting a Loved One

Petting zoo safety 101

If you bring your child to a petting zoo or a fair where animals are within kids' reach, take these precautions, the CDC advises:

  • Thoroughly wash with soap and water after leaving the animal exhibits, even if your or your child didn't touch or pet. Use hand sanitizer if there's no sink — but wash up for real as soon as you get to one.
  • Don't bring drinks or food into animal areas.
  • Don't allow your child to put his thumb, fingers or pacifiers in his mouth while interacting with animals.
  • Don't take strollers, bottles, pacifiers, spill-proof cups or toys into animal areas.

Angela is a Pulitzer Prize-winning digital editor with more than 15 years of experience delivering news and information to audiences worldwide. Prior to joining SafeBee, she was the features editor for at The Boston Globe, overseeing health, travel, entertainment, business and lifestyle coverage. Before moving to features, she was the news and homepage editor, covering stories such as the Boston Marathon bombing, Red Sox World Series victories, presidential elections, a papal inauguration, and more. Her favorite safety tip: Clean your phone! The average cell phone has 18 times more germs than the toilet handle in a men’s restroom.