Giving live animals as Easter gifts has been a tradition for decades, as a child I received a rabbit one Easter and baby chicks the Easter after. And beside my anecdotal evidence of the chicks wreaking havoc in my family’s backyard, there are serious humane and public health reasons to stick to chocolate gifts this Easter.

Year after year hundreds of human illnesses and agonizing deaths for baby chicks, ducks and rabbits are caused by this gift giving tradition. However, this has done nothing to curb the practice.

From 2000 through 2018 there were 76 Salmonella outbreaks linked to live poultry. Those outbreaks sickened 5,128, resulting in 950 hospitalizations and 7 deaths. The number of individual cases of Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and other infections from children playing with live chicks, ducks and bunnies is unknown.

Part of the problem is that children are among the most likely to not observe good hygiene around the animals and  children don’t have mature immune systems.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that children younger than five years of age shouldn’t handle or touch chicks, ducklings or other poultry, as young children are even more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella.

In 2020, CDC and public health officials in all 50 states investigated 17 multistate outbreaks of Salmonella illnesses linked to contact with poultry in backyard flocks. The number of illnesses reported this year was higher than the number reported during any of the past years’ outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.

As of Dec. 17, 2020, a total of 1,722 people infected with one of the outbreak strains of Salmonella were reported from all 50 states — 333 people were hospitalized and there was one death. Twenty-four percent of ill people were children younger than five years of age; 576 of the 876 ill people interviewed reported contact with chicks and ducklings.

People reported obtaining chicks and ducklings from several sources, including agricultural stores, websites and hatcheries.

Humane societies and animal rights groups across the U.S. advise against purchasing these pets as Easter gifts. A leading concern among these groups is the risk of animal “dumping.” This happens after the child has lost interest in the pet and the parent releases the animal into the wild. This can lead to tragedy on part of the pet and is an ecological concern.

For instance, domestic rabbits are not prepared for life in the wild and make easy prey for predators. They also will compete with other rabbit species in the area, potentially destroy native plants and can reproduce rapidly. Domestic rabbits can also carry and spread diseases, such as the RHD virus, to the indigenous rabbit species.

For more information on handling chicks safely watch the short video below.

About Salmonella infections

Food contaminated with Salmonella bacteria does not usually look, smell or taste spoiled. Anyone can become sick with a Salmonella infection. Infants, children, seniors, and people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of serious illness because their immune systems are fragile, according to the CDC.

Anyone who has handled live poultry and developed symptoms of Salmonella infection should seek medical attention. Sick people should tell their doctors about the possible exposure to Salmonella bacteria because special tests are necessary to diagnose salmonellosis. Salmonella infection symptoms can mimic other illnesses, frequently leading to misdiagnosis.

Symptoms of Salmonella infection can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, and fever within 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. Otherwise, healthy adults are usually sick for four to seven days. In some cases, however, diarrhea may be so severe that patients require hospitalization.

Older adults, children, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, such as cancer patients, are more likely to develop a severe illness and serious, sometimes life-threatening conditions.

Some people get infected without getting sick or showing any symptoms. However, they may still spread the infections to others.

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