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.