Jessica was head over heels for her trio of backyard birds. She’d longed for her own microflock of hens for years. And when the opportunity came to adopt some of her work colleague’s chickens, she eagerly accepted.
Her brother helped her convert a garden shed into a coop, complete with a roosting ladder, two nest boxes and an automatic pop door.
Since her backyard was fenced in and she had no pets, Jessica was ready to bring her hens home. Her cell phone quickly filled with photos of Smoky, Shadow and Blackie, beautiful black Cochins who’d hatched and grown up together.
Jessica was equally thrilled by the bountiful eggs her hens began laying after just a few days of adjustment. She couldn’t be happier.
“Am I Allergic to My Chickens?”
Everything was great—except for the scratchiness she felt in her throat whenever she was around her girls. And the watery, red eyes that also felt very itchy. And the alternating congestion and runny noses.
Jessica always felt better around bedtime, after she had showered and turned in for the night. After a few weeks of suffering and trying eyedrops and cold medicine, she finally arranged for a telemed appointment with her doctor.
“The moment I finished describing my symptoms, she asked me how long I’d been feeling this way and if there’d been anything new at home or work I might have been exposed to,” Jessica informed me. “Then it hit me. Am I allergic to my chickens?”
What Is an Allergy?
It’s helpful to understand exactly what an allergy is before deciding this is what is happening to you. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), an allergy develops when your body’s immune system overreacts to seemingly harmless substances.
These substances, called allergens, trigger your immune system. The immune system treats allergens the same way it would react to germs. It produces antibodies to fight the supposedly harmful substances.
Your body becomes sensitized to these allergens. And, each time you come into contact with them, your body releases chemicals to fight them.
These chemicals cause allergic reactions including coughing, sneezing, watery eyes, hives and rashes. The NIH lists farm animals—specifically cattle, sheep and chickens—as one of the most common allergens.
Feathers and Feces
When it comes to chicken allergies—and we’re talking the live animal here, not what’s for dinner—the two main instigators are a bird’s feathers and its droppings. These two substances produced by chickens can cause allergic reactions as they are. But they take more of a toll on you when they break down.
The dust created by pulverized feathers and desiccated droppings spreads everywhere, carried on the feet and bodies of the chickens themselves. It also moves by circulating air, and by your own shoes, hair. and clothing.
This poultry dust will find its way into every corner of your coop. And if your flock free ranges, it goes wherever the birds go, too.
Since it is extremely difficult to raise backyard chickens without coming in contact with the birds or their poultry dust, you may have to seriously consider giving up poultry-keeping for the sake of your health if you are, in fact, allergic.
Read more: Check out these all-American chicken breeds!
But Before You Do That…
There may be many other substances causing your allergic reactions, too. When it comes to allergies, never jump to conclusions unless the cause is obvious. (Like your face swells up minutes after swimming through a huge school of jellyfish—not that I speak from experience).
Set aside a few hours to thoroughly investigate your set-up for other allergen sources. Wear a face mask, protective eyewear and gloves to block out potential allergens. Use your phone or a notepad and pen and start listing everything that might be causing your misery.
Take note of everything from the type of bedding you use to the ingredients in your chicken feed. If you offer supplements, mark those down as well. Anything that was not in your yard prior to keeping chickens is suspect.
The Incredible, Edible Allergen
Sometimes an allergic reaction manifests itself in other ways. My youngest son, Bryce, started exhibiting terrible eczema when he was approximately 11 months old. The poor little guy experienced gastrointestinal distress and was absolutely miserable.
I was at a complete loss. None of the rest of us had reacted to anything.
Our pediatrician referred us to the university allergy clinic, where testing determined that Bryce was egg allergic. The irony of us owning a poultry farm was not lost on us.
Eliminating eggs from his diet, however, was not as simple as it may sound. Many baked goods, pastas, pizza, ice cream and other foods include eggs as an ingredient. We soon learned that eggs are the second-most common food allergy in the U.S. after milk. Quite a number of adults and children we know, we found out, are also allergic to eggs.
Most experienced gastrointestinal distress and hives. A few, like Bryce, suffered from atopic eczema. Others experienced angioedema, or swelling, on their faces. Using egg substitutes and vigilantly reading product labeling are the key ways to keep this allergy under control.
If you are experiencing any allergic reactions that manifested after you began keeping chickens, contact your primary care physician to request a referral to an allergy clinic. The allergist will most likely have you undergo a scratch or skin-prick test. This test involves exposing your skin to a number of substances, then observing the reactions.
You’ll want to avoid taking any allergy medications for several days prior to the test so that your results are accurate. Be sure to bring along the list of potential allergens you found in your coop, as this will help your doctor determine which substances to test.
If you are allergic to any of these, your skin will react with an itchy red wheal, or bump. Your allergist will sit down with you to discuss options for treating your allergies and address your concerns. They will also help guide you to your best options, should your allergies indeed be connected to your chickens.
Jessica shared her list of potential allergens with her allergist. This guided the doctor in determining what substances to use in Jessica’s scratch test.
Her results left her elated. She was not allergic to her beloved chickens after all! She was allergic to the pine shavings she was using in her coop.
Her brother pitched in and cleaned out the entire structure, scrubbing it until it was like new. Jessica now uses a mixture of timothy and alfalfa hay for bedding and in nest boxes, secure in the knowledge that she tested negative for hay allergies and that Smoky, Shadow and Blackie can happily remain with her.