I knew we had a bird problem when my daughter Lila, then 7, carried one of our baby homing pigeons inside the house to introduce him to her stuffed animals. 

She and her brother were hand-feeding the chicks because their parents had been killed by a hawk. But when we found Lila cuddling and kissing the one she named Mint, we had to put our foot down.

“But mommy, I only kissed the beak!” she protested as she was escorted to the bathroom for a good scrub. “And that part’s really clean!”

So it seems like deja vu when I read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new edict to people with backyard coops: Stop snuggling or kissing your birds. It seems that too much contact with chickens (and ducks) has led to an explosion in salmonella infections, which can cause diarrhea, fever, abdominal pain and even death.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Keeping Backyard Chickens

If you treat your backyard chickens or ducks as pets, make sure that treatment stops short of petting and kissing the animals.

Here’s why: The report from the CDC that prompted the warning noted four large outbreaks of salmonella that infected 181 people in 40 states. All four outbreaks were linked to backyard flocks. Tellingly, 82 of the 95 people (86 percent) interviewed by the CDC had had contact (and sometimes smooches) with backyard poultry within a week before the symptoms showed up.

As the CDC put it, “Ill people reported purchasing live poultry for backyard flocks to produce eggs or meat, or to keep as pets. Many ill people in these outbreaks reported bringing the live poultry into their homes, and others reported kissing or cuddling with the live poultry.”

Related: Avian Flu: Which Is Hit Worse — The Chicken or the Egg?

The salmonella outbreak related to backyard chickens spurred the CDC to draw up guidelines for backyard flock owners. Here are some of the recommendations:

  • Wash your hands after handling birds.
  • Don’t allow them in the house.
  • Don’t handle them if you’re younger than 5, older than 65 or have a weakened immune system.
  • Stay outdoors when cleaning cages, feed or water containers.
  • Don’t eat or drink around the poultry.
  • And of course, “Do not snuggle or kiss the birds.”

Why do chickens get salmonella in the first place? It’s usually because they’re eaten feed contaminated with rodent droppings, and a sick hen can pass the disease to her unborn chicks. Chickens with salmonella are often weak, with tremors, drooping wings and purple legs and combs, but they can look healthy and still carry it. If you’re buying chickens for your backyard, look for a place that’s certified by the National Poultry Improvement Plan (NPIP) — the chicken are more likely to be healthy and tested for disease.

Related: MERS, SARS, Ebola, Anthrax, Avian Flu: Are You Really in Danger?

Diana is an award-winning writer and editor with more than 20 years' experience in magazine, video, book and digital journalism, with a specialty in health coverage. She was a longtime writer and news editor at the Center for Investigative Reporting; has written for publications from the Washington Post to the Times of London syndicate; and has served as a senior and/or consulting editor at Time Inc. Health, Hippocrates, HealthDay News Service and Reporting on Health. She was also editor in chief of Consumer Health Interactive, a national health and medical web site, and has reported on finance for Blueshift Research and PBS Frontline. Before joining SafeBee, she was editor of Bioenergy Connection, a national magazine about bioenergy at UC Berkeley. Her favorite safety tip: Wear a bike helmet.