With the COVID-19 pandemic wearing on, many Americans are turning to raising chickens to fill their extra time at home. While raising backyard birds is a great idea—whether for food, for educational purposes or as a hobby—the influx of new flocks has put humans, as well as the poultry they care for, at risk of salmonella sickness.
As of July 28, 2020, more than 938 people in 48 states had reported being infected with one of the outbreak strains of salmonella—a 22 percent increase from 2019. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 151 people—or 33 percent of those with information available—were hospitalized as a result of their sickness.
Even more concerning, 28 percent of the reported infections are from children younger than 5 years of age.
“It is a serious nationwide problem,” says Sherrill Davison, associate professor of avian medicine and pathology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine’s (Penn Vet) New Bolton Center. Davison is also Penn Vet’s lead avian flock health expert. She works to manage emerging health and biosecurity issues in flocks—large and small—across the country.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Davison has seen an increase in phone calls from new flock owners looking for general management resources for their birds. She also gets calls from local veterinarians who may not be experts in avian health but need reliable information for their clients.
Based on the most recent data available from the CDC, 74 percent of individuals sickened in 2020 have reported contact with backyard poultry. But fear of contracting salmonella doesn’t mean individuals should be discouraged from enjoying poultry.
“The most important over-arching theme is to keep things around the birds clean and dry,” Davison says.
Don’t Play Chicken With Your Health
The primary key to healthy bird-keeping is diligent hand washing. “Wash your hands with soap and water right after touching backyard poultry, their eggs or anything in the area where they live and roam,” Davison says. “Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.”
Be sure children wash up, too. Davison also advises against letting kids kiss backyard poultry or snuggle them. To further protect against salmonella, keep backyard poultry outside the house, and especially away from areas where food is prepared, served or stored.
“Keep in mind, that birds carrying the bacteria can appear healthy and clean,” Davison says. “Always err to the side of caution.”
Children and adults should have a separate pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry to limit any possible cross contamination. The CDC recommends those shoes or boots be kept outside of the house.
Read more: Biosecurity helps keep hens healthy.
Keep Bad Eggs at Bay
Eggs collected from backyard birds also need special care and attention. “Be sure to collect your eggs often, as eggs that sit in the nest for too long become dirty or break, increasing risk of infection,” Davison says. “If you do find cracked eggs, throw them away immediately. Germs can more easily enter an egg though a cracked shell, putting you at risk.”
Clean collected eggs carefully with fine sandpaper, a brush or a cloth. But don’t wash them too soon. “The CDC advises against washing warm, fresh eggs because colder water can pull germs into the egg,” Davison says.
Once cleaned properly, eggs from your poultry should be refrigerated. This prolongs freshness and slows the growth of pathogens such as salmonella. When cooking eggs, be sure both the yolk and white are firm. Egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter.
“Raw and undercooked eggs may contain salmonella bacteria that can make you sick,” Davison says.
Hatch Good Poultry Husbandry Practices
Keeping healthy birds is at the heart of staving off disease. If starting or expanding a flock, purchase your birds from a reliable source. Most poultry hatcheries, including mail-order hatcheries, implement interventional practices to help prevent contamination and infection of salmonella as well as other well-known diseases.
If you get birds from an auction or a neighbor, quarantine the new birds. Test them to avoid rampant spread of disease in the flock.
Healthy birds need continual access to plenty of fresh water. Be sure to clean their waterers regularly. Owners will also need to ensure they are feeding the proper types of food for each stage of the flock’s life.
“Nutritional requirements vary by age and laying status,” Davison says. “If in doubt, consult a professional.”
In every case, keep the birds’ housing safe from predators like raccoons, foxes and hawks. Also make sure to keep the flock away from contact with wild birds.
“This includes keeping the henhouse away from wild bird feeders which can be a source of another disease known as Mycoplasma respiratory infections in flocks,” Davison says.
Lastly, understand your local township’s regulations. Some don’t allow poultry at all. Others limit flock size or forbid roosters.
With proper care, backyard birds can be a safe, healthy and productive pastime. “It is just a matter of implementing simple, but appropriate, preventative practices to reduce the incidence of disease,” Davison says.
If you are new to backyard poultry but unsure where to start, consult a professional. Penn receives inquiries from all types of poultry owners and producers—novice or professional—as well as veterinarians or other health experts seeking reliable, science-based resources.
“We’ll look at anything with feathers,” Davison says, “chickens, turkeys, ducks, large flocks, small flocks, wild birds … even ostriches!”