Can Chickens Make You Sick?
By Don Schrider, West Virginia
Backyard chicken keeping is at an all-time high. Many people add hens as a part of producing their own food. The chickens can provide free labor in the garden, free fertilizer, and they can provide fresh eggs and meat for the family. Chickens are really the easiest livestock to add to your homestead – they are the gateway livestock. But should you be worried about chickens getting you sick?
Between March and May of 2012, a total of 123 people became infected with strains of Salmonella Infantis, Salmonella Newport, and Salmonella Lille. Of those people, 57 reported having some contact with chicks or ducklings. Four of these people reported purchasing chicks from one hatchery.
In 2014 the Center for Disease Control again announced an outbreak of Salmonella Infantis and Salmonella Newport that they linked to live poultry. Of the 363 cases, 174 reported contact with live poultry the week before becoming sick. Live chicks and ducklings from the same hatchery were identified as the source of the infections multiple times.
In July of 2014 there was a report of an outbreak of E. coli in connection to a traveling petting zoo in Minnesota. A total of 13 people were infected. Poultry were not identified as a part of the petting zoo, but then they were not ruled out either.
Avian influenza has been in the news since 2003 when a sub-strain of the virus mutated and infected some people in Asia. Since this time there have been cases of the disease detected in Europe (2005), Africa and the Middle East (2006), and finally North America (British Columbia 2014). It was not until 2012 that China reported its second human death due to this disease. While few people have died from virulent sub-strains of avian influenza, the concern would be the possibility of a pandemic.
Salmonella is a bacteria that is not host specific and can thus infect multiple species. It can be found in the gut of both warm-blooded and cold-blooded animals. Salmonella is found everywhere, but when it is found in large concentrations it has the ability to bring about disease. This bacteria produces hydrogen sulfide and is best known as the causative of typhoid. Infection occurs most frequently due to contact with infected feces or water that has been contaminated by infected feces.
Defining E. coli
Escherichia coli is a very tiny rod-shaped bacterium commonly found in the lower intestines of warm-blooded organisms—like us and our animals. Most E. coli are harmless and a normal part of gut flora. A few serotypes can cause food poisoning and are responsible for some health outbreaks and food product recalls. Malevolent serotypes in our chicks are the cause of coccidiosis, which causes blood to appear in chick stool, as a result of damage to the intestines.
Avian influenza is simply the “flu” virus for birds. Influenza viruses tend to be host specific: human, avian, swine, dog or horse. Within each host type, there are thousands of different possible strains. It is rare that a strain mutates to the point of infecting a different species, and some species mutations are more rare than others. As example, evidence shows swine strains of influenza are more closely related to human strains than the other species specific strains. The Great Flu pandemic of 1918-19, aka the “Spanish Flu,” killed between 50 and 100 million people. This flu was a swine based mutation that infected people and is a classic example of the both danger and rarity of a transmission between species.
In the same way that we can catch the “flu” each winter, our horses, dogs, birds, and pigs, on rare occasions, may also get sick from their own forms of the “flu.” Just as you never give your dog the flu, it would be almost unheard of for your dog, chickens, horses, etc. to give you a case of the flu. Such transmission would require a strain to mutate considerably, while be-ing kept alive in some host. Conditions for a mutation would be unsanitary and may need to include strains of influenza for two or more species, hosts to live in as the strains mutate, and temperatures conducive to keeping viruses alive. As long as we keep the sick animals and sick humans and their manure away from each other, an animal-to-human mutation would be rare.
The Common Threads
By now it should be clear that the primary health concern for people that come into contact with poultry would be exposure to bacteria or viruses from infected birds. These disease organisms will be primarily found in feces, but may also rarely be found on feathers and in dust. Infected poultry will, in most cases, show symptoms of disease.
In all cases of infection, the people at most risk have been very young or very old — younger than 5 years of age or older than 65 years of age. People with weak or not fully-formed immune systems are naturally more susceptible and care should be taken to prevent infections or limit exposure.
But let me point out that contact with healthy poultry poses little threat. In the case of avian influenza, even sick poultry are unlikely to have a sub-strain that can infect humans. In the case of both E. coli and salmonella, disease load needs to be significant in order for exposure to result in infection — except in rare cases, or when the human has a weak or immature immune system.
How can one limit the possibility of contracting disease from poultry? How about we use a little common sense:
• Handle sick poultry last and handle them carefully. Not only don’t you want to contract a disease from your poultry, but you certainly don’t want to spread that disease to the whole flock. So, when you can, handle sick birds last and limit the amount of contact you have with them.
• Don’t kiss the poultry. Yes, they are cute. But when you kiss them you increase the possibility of contracting salmonella or E. coli, especially if their feathers are soiled or if one of them is feeling sickly.
• Wash your hands. Maybe you missed this one. Wash your hands after handling the birds. Especially wash your hands if they become soiled while han-dling birds. Soap is a wonderful product — if you use it. Hand sanitizer can be used to good effect too. My wife says that you must scrub your hands for the same amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday To You” song twice in order for the soap/sanitizer to have time to kill all the germs. (This she learned from a doctor visiting the school where she works.)
• Keep the poultry in their pens and don’t bring live chickens into your kitchen. Food prep areas need to be kept clean. Chicken manure doesn’t need to be in your kitchen. …
• Wash your eggs and dispose of heavily soiled eggs.
• Basically keep chicken manure away from your mouth and the mouths of your loved ones. Okay, had to be said.
Advantages To Poultry And Pet Keeping
Dr. Eija Bergroth of Kuopio University in Finland says, “We think the exposure to pets somehow matures the immune system, so when the child meets microbes, he might be better prepared for them.” Dr. Bergroth led a study of 397 children born between 2002 and 2005. The research showed that babies that grew up in homes with pets were 29 percent less likely to receive antibiotics and 44 percent less likely to develop ear infections. Previous research has shown lower risk of allergies and reduced likelihood of developing asthma connected to the presence of pets.
An article in the newsletter for the National Institute for Health reports that people with animals/pets have lower blood pressure and heart rates. They were also found to exercise more. And children were found to receive some emotional benefits as well. Children were asked who they spoke to first when they were upset often replied their pets. “This points to the importance of pets as a source of comfort and developing empathy,” said Dr. Griffin, an expert in child develop-ment and behavior. “In fact, therapists and researchers have reported that children with autism are sometimes better able to interact with pets, and this may help in their interactions with people.”
Children with ASD or Asbergers syndrome, a form of autism, have found chickens good therapy. An individual with ASD needs to be helped with over fixation on the inner self. The quick and jerky movement of a chicken catches the eye and encourages outward awareness. Chickens also help relieve anxiety and depression.
I remember reading a German study years ago that also reported that children raised around livestock had healthier immune systems than children raised without exposure to animals. Perhaps the fresh milk and eggs helped, but the scientists found that there was a transference of passive antibodies as well.
A Final Reality Check
There are more reports of people becoming ill from salmonella or E. coli type food poisoning from vegetables or meat products than from direct contact with live poultry. The yearly recalls might startle you. Though there have been deaths from avian influenza, the total number of worldwide fatalities is less the number of fatalities to human flu annually in the United States alone.
The odds are such that, if you could look in a crystal ball and know that you would become sick from salmonella, E. coli, or the flu, there is more likelihood of winning the lottery than having your healthy poultry infect you.
I have been raising poultry for more than 40 years now. I have had food poisoning more times than I care to re-member; heck, once is too much, and I cannot think of one time my poultry got me sick. But life is a dangerous thing, so why take chances? Enjoy your birds, but wash your hands.
Text copyright Don Schrider 2015. All rights reserved. Don Schrider is a nationally recognized poultry breeder and expert. He has written for publications such as Backyard Poultry, Countryside and Small Stock Journal, Mother Earth News, Poultry Press, and the newsletter and poultry resources of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. He is the author of the third edition of Storey’s Guide to Raising Turkeys.