By Jen Christensen
With egg prices rising, more people may be shopping for their own backyard chicken flock.
But before you build a coop and subscribe to Chicken Whisperer, health experts have a warning: Caring for backyard chickens is not as easy as bringing home a cute new kitten, and keeping chickens can come with a handful of serious health risks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Chickens can spread bacteria
You need to take extra precautions when handling the chickens and their eggs.
“Backyard poultry specifically can have salmonella germs in their poop and on their bodies, even when they look healthy and clean,” said Dr. Kathy Benedict, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service.
The bacteria can live on the bird’s beak, feathers or feet, as well as in their digestive tract, and can spread to the areas around where the birds live and onto a person’s clothes, hands or shoes. This can get the people around them sick.
Just over the past year, there have been several multistate salmonella outbreaks. Backyard flocks have been connected to at least 1,200 people getting sick with salmonella, Benedict said.
At least 225 people were hospitalized and there were two deaths connected to backyard poultry in 2022 alone.
“That’s been happening over the last several years, at least a thousand cases have been reported each year,” Benedict said. “We expect that there’s many more than that that don’t necessarily get reported to public health.”
Chickens can also expose people to the campylobacter bacteria.
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Neither bacteria typically makes the bird sick, but both can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps in people.
Benedict said people who have weakened immune systems, including people with diseases like cancer, diabetes, kidney or liver problems, as well as young children, need to take extra care around backyard chickens since they can experience more severe illness if they become infected.
Steps to keep people safe
If you decide to get your own chickens, the CDC cautious parents to keep their children under the age of 5 from touching the animals. With older children, parents should supervise their interaction. The chicks may be cute, but little kids especially are much more likely to get sick with salmonella because their immune systems are still developing.
“Don’t kiss or snuggle your backyard poultry, don’t eat or drink around them,” Benedict advised.
Backyard birds and their accoutrement should stay in the backyard and out of the house to keep the bacteria confined to where the birds live.
People may also want to keep “coop shoes” — shoes that you use exclusively when you interact with the chickens. Be sure to take them off before going back in the house, so you don’t track the bacteria inside.
Always wash your hands after touching the chickens or even keep hand sanitizer outside where you can disinfect your hands before going inside.
Precautions for handling the eggs
As far as handling the chicken’s eggs, people should collect them right away and not let them sit in the nest, since they can become dirty or break. Cracked eggs should be thrown away, since a crack can make it easy for bacteria to get inside.
Once the eggs are collected, if there’s any dirt, you should use a fine sandpaper, brush or cloth to wipe away the dirt. Don’t wash the eggs with water because colder water can pull the germs into the eggs.
The CDC recommends people refrigerate their eggs to keep them fresh. The cooler temperatures also slows the growth of the germs.
When you cook the eggs, make sure the yolk and the white are firm to again reduce your exposure to the bacteria.
“At the CDC, we want to protect people’s health but we also understand that people have these close relationships with their chickens. We love this animal-human bond,” Benedict said. “There’s just a safe way to do it.”