America’s love affair with backyard chickens is a tad too intimate, and it’s making some of us sick.
Just this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, eight separate salmonella outbreaks linked to contact with pet poultry have taken place in the United States, sickening more than 370 people in 47 states and hospitalizing 71.
No one has died in 2017 — yet. In 2016, a record 895 people who consorted with fowl came down with the nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and fever that characterize this infection, and three of them did not survive.
So the CDC is once again telling flock owners to hold back on the heavy petting. That’s not a metaphor: An agency study on the rise of these outbreaks found last year that nearly half of the hundreds of salmonella patients surveyed acknowledged “snuggling” baby birds, and 46 percent said they allowed their poultry in the house.
As backyard bird husbandry has spread throughout urban areas where poultry was previously confined to the dinner plate, many owners have come to see the animals as less food source than adored pet. A proposed ban on backyard flocks in Washington was recently scrapped after passionate opposition from chicken owners, supporters and some city council members.
But in a new advisory on the current outbreaks, the CDC repeats that cohabitation with poultry is not a good idea, no matter how cuddly and house-trained the birds might be. In particular, chickens, geese and the like should not be in spots where food is prepared and consumed, because their germs can transfer from feathers to casseroles and right into your gut.
The agency’s alert contains lots of other advice for keepers of flocks. Among the most important is hand-washing or hand-sanitizing after touching poultry or fresh eggs, which can also carry bacteria. But don’t wash the eggs, because cold water can push bacteria inside of them; instead, brush or wipe them off.
Elderly people should not touch backyard birds, nor should small children, who are more likely to get seriously ill from salmonella, the CDC says. This year, more than a third of those who got sick were under 5.
And remember: Even the fluffiest, most huggable chickens can be regular disease traffickers.
“Chicks, ducklings and other live poultry that look healthy and clean can still carry Salmonella bacteria,” the CDC said.
The salmonella outbreaks this year have hit hardest in Ohio, where 31 cases had been reported as of May 25. Here’s a map showing the breakdown across the rest of the country.