PHOTO: Shutterstock
Ana Hotaling
May 8, 2017

They’re soft. They’re fuzzy. They’re the epitome of innocence. Who can resist cuddling up to an adorable baby chick? The feel of that silky down caressing your skin may encourage you to plant a kiss on that tiny fluff ball, but resist the temptation: As cute as those chicks (and, later, adult chickens) may be, they might be hazardous to your health. Here are some of the risks associated with raising chicks and chickens, and how to keep yourself safe.

The Story On Salmonella

A group of bacteria that affect that the human digestive system, causing diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps, salmonella is carried by most warm-blooded animals. Due to reported outbreaks triggered by the consumption of infected eggs and meat, salmonella is most closely associated with poultry. Eating contaminated chicken meat and eggs is not the only way salmonellosis spreads, however: Transmission is far more common through direct contact with live chicks and adults. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported salmonella outbreaks resulting from the handling of infant and mature poultry every single year since 2010.

“Salmonella is shed from the bird’s body through its manure,” explains R.M. Fulton, an avian pathologist at the Diagnostic Center for Population and Animal Health at Michigan State University. “Of course, they come into contact with their own manure, and the bacteria gets on the birds’ feathers and feet. When people kiss baby poultry or let their children have long periods of contact with them, the chance of being exposed and becoming sick increases dramatically.”

Salmonella infection may be on the rise due to the growing trend of urban and suburban chicken keeping, which puts live poultry literally right in people’s backyards or even inside their home.

“I am aware of people putting baby chicks in a playpen with their toddler,” Fulton says. “There are people raising poultry in kitchen sinks, bathtubs and basements. It’s very hard to house-train poultry, so all of these are dangerous situations.”

Crash Course On Campylobacter

One of the leading causes of diarrheal disease in the U.S., campylobacter affects more than 1.3 million people every year, according to the CDC. Campylo-bacteriosis is frequently shrugged off as a stomach bug and often goes undiagnosed or untreated, despite its symptoms of abdominal pain, cramping, fever and blood-tinged diarrhea.

Like salmonella, campylobacter is associated with contaminated poultry and food that becomes cross-contaminated from using the same cutting board or utensils that came into contact with the raw poultry. According to the CDC, even one drop of liquid from raw chicken meat has enough campylobacter to cause infection. Like salmonella, ingesting the campylobacter is not the only way to become infected; campylobacteriosis is also spread by live contact.

Campylobacter naturally occurs in a chicken’s digestive tract, where it lives harmlessly until it is shed via the animal’s feces onto the ground or through its saliva into a common farmyard water source, spreading the bacteria to the rest of the flock. Once the microbe is picked up by a chicken’s feathers or feet, it can easily transmit itself to a human. All it takes is one hug or cuddle.

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Facts About The Flu

Much has been made of avian influenza, aka bird flu, over the past decade. Unlike salmonella and campylobacter, which can reside in birds without causing illness, avian influenza can acutely affect poultry, causing severe illness and death. Infection of backyard flocks so far has been minimal, but authorities have issued prevention guidelines and safety measures for what to do in case that happens.

The avian influenza virus can pass from bird to human not just by physical contact but also by breathing in the discharge from an infected animal’s coughs and sneezes. Fortunately, the CDC reports that no human cases of avian influenza have yet been recorded in the U.S.

“News agencies are always concerned about a new strain of influenza arising from poultry and making people sick,” Fulton says. “So far, we have not seen those strains in the U.S. They are, however, found in Asia.”

Reducing Your Risk

While chances of infection do exist when raising poultry, these can be easily minimized by following a few preventative practices in your home and out in the chicken run.

Clean Hands

Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after coming in contact with your birds and their equipment. This includes feeders, waterers, perches, nest boxes and litter, all of which come into contact with chicken feet, feathers, saliva and droppings. Be sure to also wash your hands after handling and collecting eggs, which most definitely have been in close contact with a bird’s bottom.

“My mom always told me to wash my hands before I eat,” Fulton says. “She also taught me to cut up fruits and vegetables before cutting up whole chickens or raw meat. “If people would just follow that advice, they could prevent infection.”

Clean Clothes

Designate a pair of work boots and gloves and some clothes—a coverall, a pair of jeans, a sweatshirt, a jacket—as your chicken gear. Wear only these when working in your runs and coops and, if you free-range your birds, anywhere in your yard. Store your chicken gear safely in a location well away from your personal living space and be sure to disinfect them frequently.

Clean Cartons

Don’t reuse egg cartons. Egg cartons are porous and readily absorb bacteria from unwashed or broken eggs. Don’t donate previously used egg cartons or trays to schools for use in craft projects.

Clean Disposal

Take extra precautions when handling a dead bird. Follow your local ordinances for the disposal of animal corpses. If you are uncertain why your bird died, contact your local extension office to arrange for a professional necropsy. Do not dissect the bird yourself. “Accidental puncture wounds from cutting up dead poultry can result in other, rarer diseases that people can get from poultry,” Fulton says.

Above all, keep your kisser away from your feathered friends. It’s perfectly fine to lavish a little love on your birds but just make sure you keep yourself healthy by giving your relationship a little space.

Love Lessons

Instead of putting your smacker up to your birds’ beaks, show you love them in other, more healthy ways.

  • Put some sticks and branches in the coop or run for your chickens to exercise on.
  • Hang a head of cabbage up for your birds to play with.
  • Give them some mealworms to snack on.
  • Spend some extra time with them in the coop, just watching and observing.
  • Create a dust-bathing area for them to preen their feathers.

This story appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Chickens.


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