Q fever (Coxiella burnetti) is thought to account for 1% (700 cases) of community acquired pneumonia in the United Kingdom each year, and can result in serious complications such as endocarditis. Although outbreaks have frequently been reported worldwide, the causes are often not clearly identified and there have been few studies of risk factors in sporadic cases. We conducted a matched case-control study. Cases of acute Q fever in people aged over 15 years in southwest England and Northern Ireland were identified from January 2002 to December 2004. Controls were matched for age, sex and the general practice at which they were registered. Questionnaires asking about contact with animals, and leisure and work activities, were posted to cases and controls. Questionnaires were completed by 39/50 (78%) of the cases and 90/180 (50%) of the controls. In the single variable analysis, occupational exposure to animals or animal products was the only risk factor associated with cases at the 5% level (P=0.05, odds ratio (OR) 3.4). Long term illness appeared to be significantly protective (P=0.03, OR 0.3). In multivariable analysis the strength of association between occupational exposure and illness remained high (OR 3.6, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.9 to 14.8) and smoking emerged as a possible risk factor. This is the first case-control study to identify occupational exposure to animals or animal products as the most likely route of infection in sporadic cases as opposed to outbreaks.