They may look cute, and you may think of them as your pets, but experts ask that you keep your chickens in your backyard. Don’t snuggle with them. Don’t sit them next to you as you watch TV. And please, don’t commit a fashion foul and dress them in tiny costumes, no matter how adorable.
Close contact with even the cleanest and healthiest-looking chicken can make you sick, and there’s proof this week from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, the CDC announced that it is working with states to investigate eight multistate outbreaks of salmonella connected to these kinds of backyard birds.
“A lot of people perceive a bird with salmonella will look sick, but that is really not the case,” said Megin Nichols, a CDC veterinarian. The birds carry the bacteria on their feathers, on their feet and in their droppings.
The CDC found at least 372 people across the country who had been infected with salmonella between January 4 and May 3 linked to pet ducks, chickens and geese. And that’s probably an undercount, the CDC said: Typically, for every known infection, there are 39 other people who probably got sick.
Of the 372 cases, 36% were children. No one has died from the infection, but 71 of those infections were so bad the people had to be hospitalized.
You definitely don’t want to catch this nasty bug. The bacteria can cause vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever.
In 2016, the country set a record, with 895 people getting sick with salmonella after interacting with the birds. By comparison, over the prior 26 years, there had been only 65 poultry-related outbreaks recorded.
The trendiness of these birds has probably made the infection rate increase, Nichols said, as more people want to know where their food comes from.
Before you flock to this trend, Nichols suggests reading up on caring for the animals. The CDC offers some information to help you master a few best practices, and so does the US Department of Agriculture on its Biosecurity for Birds page.
Always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after you touch the birds or their equipment. Food and water bowls can be contaminated with the bacteria, too.
Keep the birds outside so they don’t track bacteria into your home.
If you have kids, especially little ones under 5, watch how they interact with the animals. Children are particularly susceptible to the infection, as they often put their hands in their mouths. Be sure to teach them how to handle the animals.
Finally, if you collect your chicken’s eggs, be sure to cook them thoroughly before eating.