Potential Coop Dangers (for Humans)!
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Most of us don’t think of keeping chickens as a risky hobby. Coop dangers mostly apply to the feathered residents, after all. Are there things human caretakers should be wary of when hugging and feeding chickens?
Breathing issues and inhaling toxic or harmful substances might be obvious when thinking about coop dangers. People with pre-existing lung issues, and even those with no concerns, should be cautious when cleaning the coop. If you have smelled a dirty coop that has also become damp or wet in spots, you know how bad the ammonia odor can become. Not only is that harmful to your bird’s respiratory tract, but it is also harmful to people to inhale a strong ammonia odor. Before cleaning a dirty coop, open it up and allow it to ventilate first.
In addition to the ammonia odor risk, several zoonotic diseases can transmit from the dirty coop to a human. Zoonotic disease refers to pathogenic diseases that can pass from one species to another. Some of these diseases are preventable in humans with a careful approach to the time we spend in the coop.
First, here are four chicken pathogens that would love to make you ill too.
Commonly foodborne, Salmonella can spread to humans from both the chickens and the coop. Salmonella is shed in the feces, becomes attached to feathers, gets on your shoes, and is present in the dust. The birds do not always show symptoms, making it even harder to determine that your birds are ill or carrying an illness.
Conditions that can increase the risk for a salmonella outbreak include an unsanitary coop and rodent infestations. Cleaning off dropping boards, patching holes, changing the water regularly, and isolating any birds that appear unwell all help reduce disease incidence in the coop.
Salmonella in humans involves the onset of symptoms six hours to four days after infection. Typically, fever, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea are the symptoms.
Salmonella infections can transport into our homes on farm boots, gloves, and on our hands. The easiest method of prevention for any pathogen is hand washing. Frequent handwashing after any farm chore will greatly reduce the zoonotic possibility of not only salmonella contamination but many other bacteria and viruses too.
For the most part, this is a slim risk for the small flock caretaker. Individuals who work with large numbers of birds have a greater risk of becoming ill. Avian influenza sheds through saliva, nasal and respiratory secretions, and fecal droppings. If there is an avian flu outbreak in your area, take extra precautions, including keeping birds in a covered run area to reduce the exposure to wild birds. Picking birds up and holding them near your face when avian flu is a possibility is risky behavior.
Humans with avian influenza exhibit fever, fatigue, cough, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. More extreme cases can show myocarditis, encephalitis, and organ failure.
This bacterial infection spreads through feces and food from infected birds. Symptoms in people are more often seen in very young children and older individuals. Both of those demographics have more sensitive immune systems. The symptoms are usually abdominal, including cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. The tricky part about managing this bacterium is that birds typically show no signs of being ill. Your primary defense is vigilant handwashing after being in the coop, cleaning, or handling your chickens.
Escherichia coli, or E. coli, is present in the environment, found in food, animal feces, and on equipment used in animal care. It is routinely found in both human and animal feces. Coming in contact with any of these places can lead to an E. coli infection. Most E. coli do not cause harm, but the Shiga toxin version leads to severe illness and is the most common cause of E. coli infection.
Poultry and other animals do not show signs of illness from carrying disease-causing E. coli.
All people who handle birds, coops, and equipment are at risk. The illness can be severe in young children under five and older adults with immune system problems. It is an unpleasant illness, to say the least. The symptoms begin three to five days after contact and include nausea, vomiting, severe, even bloody diarrhea, cramping, and fever. Extreme cases can lead to kidney failure.
How to Avoid Zoonotic Illnesses from Chickens
Hand washing is your best defense. Monitoring small children as they participate in coop chores, frequent reminders not to touch their mouth and face, and glove-wearing for chores will help, too. Wash hands after collecting eggs, cleaning the dropping board, nest boxes, and roost bars.
When raising meat birds, be vigilant when processing the chickens. Follow all the food safety rules for temperature control, washing, and freezing. Cook all poultry and eggs thoroughly before eating.
If you wash the fresh eggs, they must be refrigerated. Leaving clean unwashed eggs at room temperature for a short time is generally accepted as safe. Wash these eggs before use.
While I have never held back from picking up a friendly chicken for a snuggle, I am aware that this is a slight risk for disease transfer. I also will never suggest that we look at our flocks as nothing but germ carriers! Knowing the risks allows us to stay healthy while enjoying all the backyard chicken-keeping perks.
Originally published in the August/September 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.