CDC Calls "Fowl" on Chicken Cuddling
Agency links four salmonella outbreaks to contact with backyard flocks
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.
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.”
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.