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Staying Safe When Handling Live Poultry

Yes, baby chicks, ducklings and other poultry that appear in farm stores this time of year are as cute as can be. And, yes, children especially love to hold them and even nuzzle them mouth to beak.

Unfortunately, that’s where the danger begins. The reason? No matter how healthy or clean the baby birds may look, they may be carrying Salmonella, warns Kathy Lofy, interim state health officer for the Washington State Department of Health.

While it’s fun for families to get baby birds, bacteria the birds shed can make people sick, said Lofy. That’s especially true for young children, who account for the largest proportion of live poultry-related Salmonella cases. That’s why they should be closely supervised when around live poultry. But elderly adults and people with weakened immune systems are also more likely than the general population to get sick from Salmonella.

Bottom line, says the Washington State Health Department, adults should make sure kids wash their hands right away after touching the poultry or other things in their environment such as straw or nest boxes. And, just as important, adults should make sure kids don’t nuzzle or kiss the baby poultry.

Symptoms of Salmonella infection can include diarrhea, fever, stomach pain, nausea and vomiting. The symptoms usually last several days, but severe cases may require hospitalization and can even result in death.

Parents should call their health care provider if they or their children have a high fever, severe diarrhea, or other symptoms that concern them regarding the handling of poultry.

As in many other states, more and more families in Washington state are raising home flocks of chickens, mainly for eggs and meat. However, some families buy baby chicks for their children as an Easter present. This is discouraged because children younger than five quickly lose interest in the birds, especially as the birds get older.

Last year’s outbreak

Last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that a multi-state outbreak of human Salmonella Typhimurium infections linked to live poultry in backyard flocks accounted for more than 350 cases of the disease and 62 hospitalizations in 39 states.

In Washington state, 19 people were part of the multi-state outbreak of Salmonella associated with handling live poultry. Thirteen of the cases were children younger than 10.

Among the 240 ill people whom CDC had information about, 62 (or 26 percent) were hospitalized. Fifty-seven percent of the ill people were children 10 years of age or younger. And, 76 percent of the ill people reported that they had been in contact with live poultry in the week before their illness began.

Another wake-up call in these CDC statistics: 95 percent of the ill people said they had bought the live poultry from agricultural feed stores.

Traceback investigations identified 18 mail-order hatcheries that supplied poultry to these feed stores, with the majority of  those investigations traced to a New Mexico hatchery.

Out in the marketplace, mail-order hatcheries, agricultural feed stores, and others that sell or display live poultry are encouraged to continue providing health-related information to customers at the point of purchase. Customers are urged to make sure they obtain this information before taking the baby birds home.

Safety tips

Here are some additional safety tips and information from the Washington State Department of Health.

  • Salmonella germs can get on cages and other things the birds touch. Salmonella bacteria on your hands can spread to other people and surfaces, or infect you – if you don’t wash up.
  • Anyone can get a Salmonella infection, which can cause serious illness. Children are especially at risk of illness because they are less likely to wash their hands and have more frequent hand-to-mouth contact than adults.
  • Wash hands with soap and water after touching chicks and ducklings. This is the single most important thing you can do! When soap and water are not available, alcohol-based hand wipes and gel sanitizers may be used. Sanitizers may not be as effective if hands are too dirty. Clean off as much dirt as possible before using sanitizers.
  • Supervise children when they are handling poultry. Don’t allow children to nuzzle or kiss chicks and ducklings, touch their mouths with their hands, or eat and drink while handling birds.
  • Keep young poultry away from family living spaces. Keep birds and their equipment out of the kitchen. Disinfect areas where feeders, water containers and cages are cleaned.

Protect your birds from diseases

Lack of cleanliness is often the cause of poultry disease, according to University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. Here are several measures that should be taken in a home chicken flock:

  • Completely clean and disinfect the chicken house and equipment before starting baby chicks or housing layers.
  • Clean waterers daily.
  • Screen manure pits under roosts, feeders and waterers to keep the chickens out of the manure.
  • Manage litter to keep it dry and clean.
  • Incinerate, bury or compost all dead birds.
  • Raise young stock away from adult chickens.
  • Isolate the flock from outside traffic (chickens raised off the farm, neighbors, birds, dogs, etc.)
  • Practice good housekeeping and rodent control.
  • Dispose of litter and manure by spreading and plowing or spading the manure under the soil. Manure and litter should be spread or stored in areas not used by poultry.

What if you suspect disease?

Poultry owners are encouraged to report unusual signs of illness to their state veterinary office, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or their local veterinarian. Warning signs of bird diseases include sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, diarrhea, listlessness and sudden death of multiple birds.

Poultry calendar

The Washington State Department of Agriculture provides a calendar devoted to poultry health.

Safe chick handling video

Last season, Food Safety News produced a video on safely handling baby chicks. Watch it below.

© Food Safety News
  • pawpaw

    Thanks for this thorough review Cookson, the practical advice/warnings and links therein. To highlight the concerns and lesen risk. Reminds me of the children in SE Asia who contracted H1N1 avian flu from playing with heads severed from sick poultry, then spread that strain to other humans.
    Salmonella is part of normal gut flora in healthy birds, reptiles, amphibians, small rodents, etc.
    Petting zoos are another area where all, especially kids should wash their hands well. Even if not touching the animals but the railings around them.
    So a great point that hand sanitizer is less effective when microbial load is heavy. Removing all debris from hands is important point in lessening transmission.
    Thanks also, FSN for the piece yesterday about means to produce salmonella-free turkey poults. Interesting the regulatory hurdles to use of competitive exclusion.

  • sickchicks

    Thank you for this well written article on an increasingly important subject. Unfortunately, this appears that it will be an ongoing and growing cycle for quite some time.
    For many consecutive years, a select few (but extremely popular) hatcheries that have been linked in previous Salmonella outbreaks have been allowed to and continue selling chicks without anything having been done to address the issue while other hatcheries have proven to effectively eradicate such strains from their perennial flocks.
    With the explosive growth of backyard chickens, “Chick Days” has become a lucrative business for both local and national agricultural feed stores. While this and most articles discussing the risk of Salmonella poisoning associated with live poultry correctly discuss the importance of the consumer taking the necessary precautions, I believe all are missing a key link in at least subduing the growth of this cycle.
    As the article states, “Another wake-up call in these CDC statistics: 95% of the ill people say they had bought live poultry from agricultural feed stores.” Well, this bodes the question, “How well trained and monitored are the employees at these agricultural feed stores if at all?” Sadly, there is plenty of evidence depicting an obvious shortcoming on this front – opening the employees and consumers to undue risk. A quick search of “Chick Days” on your social media sites (YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc) quickly return countless videos, pictures and stories that leave one shaking their head.
    Employees handling poultry barehanded. Standing in the bins. Kissing them. Giving them to children to hold. After watching a lot of these, it seems that any pre-cautions given to those purchasing live poultry MUST also be given to any patron of these stores as the risk of cross-contamination can only be huge.

  • Sam Onella

    No wonder these outbreaks linked to hatcheries continue to recur year after year. At some point we need to move on from the “don’t kiss your chickens” & “don’t keep them in your house” as the most touted ways to avoid getting Salmonella from chickens. The chickens also contaminate their environments. I would argue that the vast majority don’t bring chickens into their homes to be fondled and kissed by their young children and if they were to do so, are aware they run the risk of disease. In contrast, how many are aware that you can get Salmonella from the environment around the yard…for up to 9 months!?!? Just from touching the coop or water dish? How about just walking through the field in which the chickens free roam? Lawn mowers, bikes, soccer balls…etc. Yes, the obvious needs to be stated…over and over again. However, it is long overdue to add some more pertinent preventative measures.