With egg prices rising, many people may be buying their own backyard chickens.
But before you build a coop and sign up for the Chicken Whisperer, health experts have a word of caution: Caring for backyard chickens isn’t as easy as bringing home a cute baby, and keeping chickens can come with a number of health risks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
You must be careful when handling chickens and their eggs.
Dr. Kathy Benedict, an epidemiologist with the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, said:
The bacteria can be found on the bird’s beak, feathers or feet, as well as in its digestive tract, and can spread to the surrounding areas where the bird lives and on a person’s clothes, hands or shoes. This can make the surrounding people sick.
In the past year, there have been many outbreaks of salmonella. Backyard pets have been linked to at least 1,200 people getting sick with salmonella, Benedict said.
About 225 people were hospitalized and there were two deaths linked to backyard chickens in 2022 alone.
“This has been going on for the past few years, about 1,000 cases are reported every year,” Benedict said. “We’re hoping there’s more to it than what’s being reported in public health.”
Poultry can also expose humans to campylobacter bacteria.
None of the bacteria make birds sick, but all can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps in humans.
Benedict said people with weakened immune systems, including those with diseases such as cancer, diabetes, kidney or liver disease, as well as young children, should be very careful with backyard chickens because they can become very sick if they become infected.
If you’re considering getting your own chickens, the CDC advises parents to prevent their children under 5 from handling meat. With older children, parents should monitor their behavior. Chicks may be cute, but young children are especially susceptible to salmonella because their immune systems are developing.
“Don’t kiss or play with the chickens in your backyard, don’t eat or drink near them,” Benedict advised.
Backyard birds and their accoutrements should be kept indoors and outdoors to keep bacteria in the bird’s habitat.
People may also want to keep “coop shoes” – shoes that you only use when interacting with chickens. Make sure you remove them before you go back indoors, so you don’t have to look at the bacteria inside.
Always wash your hands after handling chickens or have hand sanitizer available outside where you can disinfect your hands before going inside.
When it comes to catching chicken eggs, people should collect them immediately and don’t let them stay in the nest, because they can be contaminated or broken. Cracked eggs should be thrown away, as cracks can make it easier for bacteria to get inside.
After the eggs are collected, if there is dirt, you should use fine sandpaper, a brush or a cloth to remove the dirt. Do not wash eggs with water because cold water can draw germs from the eggs.
The CDC recommends that people store their eggs in the refrigerator to keep them fresh. The cooler temperatures also slow down the growth of germs.
When you cook eggs, make sure the yolk and white are solid to minimize contact with bacteria.
“At CDC, we want to protect public health but we also understand that people have a close relationship with their chickens. We love the animal-to-animal relationship,” said Benedict. “There is a safer way to do it.”