You don’t need us to tell you that backyard chickens have become an urban (and suburban) obsession.
But here’s what you may not know: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented a record high number of salmonella infections linked to these domestic flocks.
“This year saw the largest number of illnesses linked to contact with backyard poultry ever recorded,” the CDC writes in an investigation update.
So far this year, 895 people from 48 states have gotten sick, and 209 people have been hospitalized. In Mississippi, a salmonella infection linked to backyard poultry was determined to be the cause of death of one person.
It’s no surprise that chickens can harbor bacteria that can make us sick. “It’s common for chickens, ducks and other poultry to carry Salmonella, a type of germ that naturally lives in the intestines,” explains the CDC.
A few years back, we reported on a 2012 salmonella outbreak that sickened 195 people, most of whom had been in contact with live chickens. In that outbreak, many of those sickened had purchased chickens from a mail-order hatchery in Ohio.
So, the best defense against an infection? Wash your hands after any contact with a chicken or “anything in the area where they live and roam,” urges the CDC.
This year, about 30 percent of the documented infections were in small children, 5 years or younger. The CDC says children are “much more likely to get sick from contact with chicken and other live poultry,” so the recommendation is that children under 5 shouldn’t handle or touch the birds. Some backyard chickens enthusiasts have pushed back against this advice.
So what else can you do to protect yourself? Don’t kiss your chickens! As my colleague Jason Beaubien reported this summer, it’s easy to start thinking of your backyard chickens as family pets. But you may be better off creating some personal boundaries. “We do not recommend snuggling or kissing the birds, ” the CDC’s Megin Nichols told Beaubien.
I understand the appeal of backyard chickens, especially given the gift they keep giving with fresh-laid eggs. And baby chicks — with their bright yellow fluff — are adorable. Earlier this spring, we brought a few home from a local farm on a temporary loan, and my daughter — who named them Rosie and Sweet Pea — bonded with them immediately.
We did wash hands, thoroughly, after every play session, and no one got sick.