As a backyard flock owner, it’s tempting to dismiss the Center for Disease Control’s warnings about close contact with your chickens being a health risk. It’s not like you have a factory farm with overcrowding that leads to disease, which leads to overuse of drugs, which leads to drug-resistant disease mutations, which spread and becomes an outbreak. No, thank goodness! You just have a few chicks, ducklings or turkey poults and you raise them like pets. They come when you call them, and you like to be affectionate with them. How could something so innocent as kissing a baby chick make you sick? When you look at the facts, you may think twice before you get physical.
Let’s Get Statistical: What The Numbers Mean
Ten main diseases are described as zoonotic, transmitted from animals to humans, in the Agricultural Extension publication Avian Diseases Transmissible to Humans: Salmonellosis, Arizonosis, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Colibaccilosis, Avian Tuberculosis, Histoplasmosis, Cryptococcosis, Cryptosporidiosis and Allergic Alveolitis.
Of these ten, Salmonellosis is the one we hear about because it is the most common food-borne illness in humans. The CDC’s notice in July 2015 warned backyard poultry keepers of salmonella outbreaks because of 218 individual cases, from 41 states. Their investigations perform a type of DNA fingerprinting, called serotyping, to find out if the infections are connected. They determined that these illnesses were caused by four outbreaks, each outbreak a different strain of salmonella. Eighty-four percent of people interviewed reported contact with live poultry in the week before their illness.
How does that compare with food-borne illness due to salmonella? So far this year, 41 percent of all reported salmonella outbreaks were due to live poultry. In 2014, it was 34 percent. Your chances are greater of getting sick because of handling a chicken than from eating poultry products. Just as you would carefully clean up after preparing raw meat in your kitchen, you will stay healthier by keeping things clean when you interact with your birds.
Here’s the breakdown of salmonella cases for 2014 and 2015 via the CDC:
- 152 – pork
13 – poultry products
65 – frozen raw tuna
22 – pet crested geckos
53 – cucumbers
SUBTOTAL = 305
live poultry = 218
GRAND TOTAL = 523
live poultry percentage = 41%
- 275 – cucumbers
115 – bean sprouts
6 – nut butter
41 – clinical testing labs
31 – sprouted chia powder
41 – feeder rodents
166 – pet bearded dragons
9 – chicken
17 – raw cashew cheese
SUBTOTAL = 701
live poultry = 363
GRAND TOTAL = 1,064
live poultry percentage = 34%
Let’s Get Physical: Why Cuddle?
Backyard flock keepers are dedicated and passionate. Several Urban Farm readers have submitted their reactions to the CDC’s warnings.
Katie Hickman writes, “I oppose strongly with chicken kissing, especially on the beak. They dig in the dirt, poop and pick up bugs with that beak. The obvious gross factor is one reason, the other, I’m sure the chicken doesn’t want nasty human lips on their preened feathers. Chickens don’t feel loved when kissed; they feel smothered and probably fight to get away.”
We humans have a habit of imposing our means of communication on other species. It’s a way to make them seem more human to us so that we can relate to them better. Most chicken owners would not cuddle their birds if it seemed to upset them, and nobody is saying to stop being affectionate with your flock. However, any contact with the mouth is crossing a line that could mean serious illness.
Daunine Hoenemier is a proud snuggler. She says, “I snuggle the tar out of my chickens. They love it … My chickens come running when I call them. My most willing to be assaulted with love also happens to be the most robust one of the group. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
Chris Kleefisch is a bit more stand-offish and says, “I just pet my girls on the back. One of my girls pecked my kid in the eye.” That’s another good reason to keep birds’ beaks at arm’s length, especially because their instinct is to peck at shiny objects like water bubbles. Your eye could get popped!
Does knowledge change behavior? Is the CDC’s report going to affect they way you show love to your birds? For Sarah Gobeille, the answer is no.
“I spent years and years working in humane societies (director of operations and management/vet tech),” Gobeille writes. ” I love pets and my chickens are just that: pets. I keep them clean as my 2-year-old plays with them. I’m meticulous about all aspects of hygiene, perhaps my humane society past? Either way would I kiss any ol’ chicken? Probably not, but mine definitely!”
Let’s Get Clinical: Keep Your Chicks Clean
There are more than 25,000 strains of salmonella. A few of these will make your birds sick; others will make you sick but not affect your birds. It doesn’t matter whether your flock looks and acts healthy. If they carry pathogens, you usually can’t tell by looking. They could have arrived at your home already carrying salmonella from the hatchery.
The germs are on the feathers, beak, feces, feet and in the coop. Infections happen when a person ingests those germs. Children are more susceptible because their immune systems are still developing, and they tend to put things in their mouths. The elderly or those with compromised immune systems are also at higher risk.
Prevention is key. Hatcheries are taking more responsibility for addressing recurring problems. The National Poultry Improvement Plan provides health and safety guidelines for hatcheries or anyone keeping poultry. You can ask before you buy your next chicks whether they are salmonella monitored. The hatchery can participate at different levels; some may just meet the minimum requirements, and others may do all they can to provide the healthiest birds possible. A partial list of hatcheries participating in NPIP include:
- Metzer Farms
- Belt Hatchery
- McMurray Hatchery
- Welp Hatchery
- Stromberg’s Hatchery
- Cackle Hatchery
- Estes Hatchery
- Privett Hatchery
- Meyer Hatchery
- Ideal Hatcher
You can also help with containing any problems and paying attention to the health of those who handle your birds. If you have flu-like symptoms and those around you do not, make sure you tell your health-care provider that you handle birds. It will help them diagnose you properly, and most zoonotic diseases require reporting at either the state or federal level. Remember that sanitation goes both ways. If you have contracted a food-borne case of salmonella, you could actually infect your birds.
Proper sanitation means keeping chicken-coop equipment separate from any other gear. Leave boots or shoes outside, and don’t use the kitchen sink for cleaning feeders. If you allow children to handle birds, supervise their hand-washing afterwards. It’s best not to keep chicks indoors at all. Also, wear a dust mask when cleaning the coop. With proper hygiene, you and your feathered friends will stay healthy enough to kiss your fears of cuddling goodbye or maybe just give them a high-five.
About the Author: Karen Lanier has spent half of her life as a transient park ranger and photographer, intrigued by the intersections of culture and nature. Now she’s learning how to put down roots by settling in Lexington, Ky., and growing squash vertically.