Salmonella, the CDC, and Handling Pet Chickens July 17, 2015

We have always advised practicing good biosecurity with your birds. When you handle them, make sure to wash your hands—make especially sure your children wash their hands. Baby chicks look like adorable, kissable little fluff balls. But of course they’re walking and pecking around in poopy litter. Erg. That’s a salmonella danger.

wash your hands to help avoid the risk of salmonella

Gently handling chicks is important; just be aware that they’ve been walking around in litter. So wash your hands after handling poultry or equipment.

While backyard pet chickens are not the “disgusting, dirty birds” commercial hens in battery cages are forced to be—battery hens live their lives in about the same space as a sheet of notebook paper, unable to ever stretch their wings—pet chickens carry germs just like pet cats and pet dogs do.

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I will lick your face. This tongue was made for lickin’!

The CDC is blaming a recent salmonella outbreak on backyard poultry owners’ affection for their birds. We find some of their advice a little disingenuous, though. Of course kissing your birds is not the most sanitary thing you could do—we advise against literally kissing your flock. After all, if they do have any bad bacteria to give you, putting it directly on your lips with a big smooch is one of the quickest ways to get sick. But not handling your birds? Come on, now.

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Handling chickens is one of the most powerful tools in your healthy chicken arsenal. When they are used to handling, you’ll be far more likely to notice if someone isn’t feeling well and needs veterinary care.

Now of course it’s true that if you never touch or handle chickens, it will be a lot more difficult for you to get sick from something they have on their skin or in their feathers. But it’s also true that you can get sick from what your dog or cat carries in. Heck, one unfortunate fellow caught the plague from his dog. As common as it is for dog lovers to permit, you really don’t want to let your dog lick your face. When your dog or cat sits on the couch, his ahem, anus is pressed there against the cushion, where you might lay your head or put your hand.

Reggie the King Charles Cavalier Spaniel is happy

Guess what I’ve been eating?

In short, living with pets—whether they are cats, dogs or chickens—exposes us to a certain amount of bacteria and parasites. You can get ringworm, hookwarm, giardia, campylobacter, toxoplasmosis, and so on from dogs and cats—yet the CDC doesn’t advise against handling dogs and cats, even though more people have them as pets. More people get sick from bacteria picked up from these more common pets than they do from pet chickens.

Even looking at just rabies (primarily a disease of mammals, not birds), the CDC estimates that over 40,000 people per year are exposed to rabies, with “most people … exposed to rabies due to close contact with domestic animals, such as cats or dogs” rather than wild animals. By contrast, only about 60 salmonella related illnesses per year are related to live poultry. Heck in 2012, 49 salmonella illnesses were linked to ONE salmonella outbreak stemming from dry dog food. Even the CDC confirms that “Salmonella is usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with small amounts of animal feces,” rather than by contact with chickens. This is how you get the outbreaks from bagged salad, spinach or apples.

Every illness is concerning and important to address. But when keeping pets of any sort, the important thing is really keeping exposure at reasonable, manageable levels–and protecting those who have compromised immune systems. This doesn’t mean raising your kids in a bubble, though–in fact, evidence suggests that kids who’ve had limited exposure to “parasites, bacteria, and viruses… face a greater chance of having allergies, asthma, and other autoimmune diseases during adulthood.” Even just growing up on a farm means you’ll be less likely to suffer from allergies as an adult.

Of course we’re not suggesting throwing your kids into the coop or brooder and letting them eat the litter or lick chicken feet. Yuck. But we also don’t feel that you should give up keeping chickens, any more than you should give up dogs and cats.

The Center for Disease Control suggests these precautions for reducing the chance of contracting Salmonella:

  • Always wash your hands with soap and water right after touching live poultry or equipment. Adults should supervise handwashing by young children. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available.
  • Also, don’t let live poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored.
  • Don’t let children younger than 5 years, adults older than 65, or people with weakened immune systems from conditions such as cancer treatment, HIV/AIDS or organ transplants, handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.
  • Don’t eat or drink in the area where the birds live or roam.
  • Avoid kissing your birds or snuggling them, and then touching your mouth.
  • Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment used to raise or care for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers.
  • Buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP) U.S. voluntary Salmonella Monitoring Program. This program is intended to reduce the incidence of Salmonella in baby poultry in the hatchery, which helps prevent the spread of illness among poultry and people.

(Yes, My Pet Chicken’s hatchery is NPIP certified)!

The truth is that data shows small scale farming actually helps protect us and our food supply. We’d like to see more statistics related to salmonella. But we already know that “When it comes to bird flu, diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem.” We also know that “the key to protecting backyard poultry and people from bird flu is to protect them from industrial poultry and poultry products.” (My emphasis added.)

In other words, making sure that we have the right to small flocks of backyard chickens is a way to protect ourselves and our communities from the diseases that proliferate in large scale commercial operations where tens of thousands of birds are concentrated together in a very small space.

Chickens and gardening -limiting their time in the garden

I am living in chicken paradise.

We don’t want to downplay the importance of responsible handling. But recommendations against handling at all? Even the FDA doesn’t recommend NOT touching your birds at all. This seems more than a little silly. At the least, monitor your chickens’ health. Checked them over for mites and lice. If they are limping, look for bumblefoot, and so on. To do that you need to, you know, touch them. This is responsible ownership, something sorely lacking in commercial operations where the birds are just too numerous for anyone to notice problems.

Families keeping small numbers of chickens as pets—because pets get good care and are closely monitored for health—is one of the best ways to safeguard our food supplies.

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Also… fresh eggs are SO delicious.

Read more about commonsense biosecurity on our website (HINT: you should do things like wash your hands, use clean equipment, buy from reputable hatcheries or breeders and so on—just like you would with other animals). You can also read about how salmonella is more of a danger with factory farmed birds—and even watch the FDA’s videos about how to responsibly handle your backyard birds.

Maybe the CDC and FDA should get together and agree upon handling recommendations. What do you think?

6 Comments
Lisa of Fresh Eggs Daily July 18th, 2015

Great balanced article Lissa. I am doing the same. I have always recommended handling chicks (and ducklings) as much as possible to get them used to you and so you end up with a far friendlier flock that you can actually pick up and handle with ease if needed to do a check-up or treat an ill or injured bird. I think the CDC warning went a bit overboard, but I do agree that actually kissing any animal isn’t the smartest thing. Snuggle, cuddle, pet and hold, then wash your hands, change your clothing and shoes and you’re good to go.

Lissa July 19th, 2015

Thanks, Lisa!

Andrea from Black Thistle Farm July 27th, 2015

Hi, Lissa. I was so happy to read a reasonable and scientific post on chickens and “disease.” I do research on this for my chicken behavior clients – and I tell them to hug and be with the birds as much as possible!

Teresa McGowan August 1st, 2015

I was contacted the same week you wrote this by someone who was writing an article for the Boston Globe about cuddling your chickens. At first my response was “of course”, but then I thought better. I suspected her piece might have been at least partly about the CDC alert (although she didn’t say that).
Wish I had come up with such a well-written, thoughtful and reasonable response like the above. It will be a great reference for the future. Thank you so much !!

Liz August 13th, 2015

I’m not a germaphobe, but I keep a pretty clean house, so we always used the five-second rule (or ten-second, or two-minute, or…) to handle instances of dropped items on the kitchen floor. Most of the time, I just picked it up, rinsed it off, and handed it back to whichever kid dropped it. and yes, we ate it.

But once we had free-ranging chickens in the yard, I knew that our shoes were moving through areas of chicken droppings, so my freshly swept kitchen floor might look cleaner than it was. So we no longer follow the five-second rule, just to be safe. And we wash our hands whenever we handle (or snuggle) the chickens or their equipment (well we don’t snuggle the equipment…) It’s just common sense.

But don’t stop snuggling those chickens — they’re too cute.

Kris July 6th, 2016

My son who is 2 was just diagnosed with salmonella last week. He suffered from diarrhea every 20 minutes for 4 days , temps up to 104 and vomiting. After a ER visit and frantic calls to the doctor when he was having blood in his stools he is thankfully improving but still 8 days later he is not fully recovered. We have 15 egg layers on our farm and after reading up on this I am sure this is how he got this terrible bacteria. I don’t want to discourage anyone from having backyard chickens but want to stess the importance of good hand washing and supervised exposure with young children. This is something I would have never thought about before his sickness and just want everyone with chickens to be informed.

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