If you’re an urban or suburban chicken farmer, there's a chance you may consider your egg-producing, feathered friends family. You may have even given your chickens names, and you certainly care about them deeply. But do you cuddle and kiss them?
As of July 2016, there are 611 people in 45 states with salmonella poisoning from contact with backyard chickens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). At least 138 people were hospitalized. “These outbreaks are expected to continue for the next several months since flock owners might be unaware of the risk of salmonella infection from live poultry or participate in risky behaviors that can result in infection,” according to the CDC.
The outbreak of salmonella can be traced back to chicks, ducklings and other poultry from multiple hatcheries in several states. People who have gotten birds that began life in these hatcheries are getting sick after close contact with the birds. However, the CDC notes, all live poultry can carry salmonella bacteria, regardless of where they were purchased and even if they look healthy and clean.
Of course, not all of those who have gotten ill have kissed their chickens. Any human contact with an infected bird can lead to illness. The CDC explains how:
People become infected with Salmonella when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with feces in or around their mouth. Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths. It is important to wash hands immediately after touching poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam, because the germs on your hands can easily spread to other people or things.
To minimize the risk of salmonella poisoning from live poultry, the CDC recommends always assuming that contamination can happen and recommends the following.
- After touching live poultry or an area where they've been, wash your hands with soap and water. If none is available, use hand sanitizer.
- Don't let children under age 5 handle or touch live poultry without adult supervision.
- If you have clothes and shoes soiled from being around poultry, wash your hands after removing them.
- Cook eggs that you’ve collected from backyard hens thoroughly since salmonella can pass to the interior eggs.
- Clean equipment and materials associated with the birds.
- Don’t bring live poultry inside your house.
And, while the CDC page doesn’t mention it specifically, I think it’s safe to say the agency would recommend NOT kissing or cuddling your backyard chickens.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in July 2015.