You can get eggs and high-quality compost from backyard chickens—but you can also get Salmonella.
Urban dwellers are increasingly taking a page from rural communities by keeping backyard chickens. Part of a grassroots sustainability movement, more people are discovering the benefits of keeping a few chickens for a variety of reasons, including having a better idea of where their food is coming from. Fresh eggs, insect control, and sending food scraps out to the chickens are just a few of the reasons people are investing in coops and chicks.
For those just starting a backyard flock this year, or seasoned chicken owners planning a new year, keeping poultry means staying ahead of the diseases they can spread, like Salmonella.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the agency saw a record-breaking number of Salmonella cases related to backyard poultry. Outbreaks were reported in 48 states, with a total case count of 895, including three deaths and more than 200 hospitalizations.
With Salmonella cases in 2016 at an all-time high, and growing interest in residential flocks, the 2017 season could see even higher case counts if poultry owners are unaware of good practices for avoiding pathogens.
Salmonella is a bacteria that resides in the gut of poultry and other animals. While birds like chicken and ducks are not often affected by the germ, the bacteria passes into their droppings and is generally considered to be present wherever poultry reside.
Because the bacteria remain where poultry has been, it is possible to get Salmonella, or other poultry-borne pathogens like Esherichia coli (E. coli) or Campylobacter, without even having physical contact with a chicken or duck.
If you have backyard birds, and you or a family member becomes ill, Salmonella infections usually resolve without treatment in about a week. Symptoms to watch for include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever. As with many infections, those most likely to suffer serious, or life-threatening disease, are young children, older adults, and anyone suffering a chronic illness that might impair their immune function. In 2016, 28% of the victims were children under five years of age.
In the outbreaks suffered last year, people were exposed to Salmonella from chicks purchased from feed supply stores and online hatcheries. In some cases, the chicks were intended as pets or Easter gifts, and others were exposed by their backyard flock, or in an educational or school setting.
Remember that no matter how clean your chickens appear, or how clean you keep their coop, they can still transmit Salmonella. Good sanitary practices will help keep you, and your poultry, healthy. Here are some tips:
- At the outset, be sure you are legally able to keep a backyard flock, and what kinds of birds are acceptable. If your area is not zoned for poultry, work with local officials to find out why, and what you might do to help change that. Regulations, like not keeping a rooster because of noise, are on the books for a reason.
- Before you buy, be sure you are ready to own and take care of your chicks or ducks. If you know others in your area with chickens, ask about resources, and find a local veterinarian that handles poultry if needed.
- Do some research about the care of poultry before you buy. As with any animal, it is better to understand future responsibilities upfront. Investigate coop designs, and put that in place before you bring home your first chick. Choose the right bedding, like straw or sawdust, for your coop, and be sure to have supplies and equipment on hand to feed and water your new flock. Your equipment should include gloves for anyone working in the coop, and tools that will be used only for taking care of your poultry (like a shovel to clean out straw).
- When you are ready to buy, learn about the types of poultry you might like best and ask suppliers if they follow the US Voluntary Salmonella Monitoring Program. The voluntary program works to try and reduce the amount of Salmonella present in hatcheries and their chicks.
- Buy healthy, alert birds from a reputable supplier, make sure your chicks or birds are active—not lethargic, and do not have any discharge from their eyes or beak.
- At home, do not allow birds, or equipment used to care for them, into your house. Although your chicken could be a pet, it is important not to snuggle, kiss, or bring your the bird into your home. Routine use of hand-sanitizer and hand-washing is important to avoid infections.
- Regularly clean your coop and tools, washing first, and disinfecting with a product labeled for that use afterward. Keep a separate pair of shoes outside for use in the coop, or in the area where your poultry will be. Do not wear these shoes back into your house.
In early March, the United States Department of Agriculture identified a highly contagious avian influenza in a commercial chicken breeder in Tennessee. The flock of 73,500 birds will be culled. In a comment from the Maryland Department of Agriculture, Joe Bartenfelder, Agricultural Secretary for that state, remarked, "I urge all of our poultry owners—from large commercial operations to small backyard flocks—to remain vigilant in your biosecurity practices and recordkeeping."
For backyard or other flocks, biosecurity measures include:
- Report sick, or quickly dying birds. While you may not have a significant flock size, sudden death of your birds would be reason to contact your veterinarian.
- Watch for watery diarrhea, discharge, coughing, swelling, or other symptoms in your poultry.
- Limit visitors and do not share your birds with other flocks.
- Cleanliness and proper sanitation is crucial.
A backyard flock has a lot of advantages for you and your family. Whether or not you are new to backyard chickens, good sanitation and safety practices let you enjoy the benefits of home poultry, and avoid the pathogens.