Raising backyard poultry is a popular endeavor and can provide excellent recreational and educational experiences for individuals and families.
However, these birds are not without risk. If you are considering embarking on this feathery adventure, be sure that you are adequately informed about potential diseases and how to limit risk. What types of birds are we talking about, here?
Popular choices for raising backyard poultry include chickens, geese, turkeys, and ducks. However, any wild or domestic bird can carry disease, so these principles can be applied to any bird you may have contact with.
Those birds seem so harmless! What risk could they possibly pose?
Poultry can carry diseases that are zoonotic (transmissible to people). The three diseases that we are most concerned about with these birds are salmonella, campylobacter, and avian influenza.
Salmonella: Salmonellosis is a bacterial disease that causes gastrointestinal signs (such as diarrhea, vomiting, fever, or abdominal cramping) in people. Most infections last about one week. In some instances, excessive diarrhea can lead to dehydration.
In serious cases, the infection can spread into the bloodstream and to other parts of the body, and hospitalization may be necessary.
Campylobacter: This is another bacterial disease that causes diarrhea, cramping, and fever in people. Signs generally appear 2-5 days after exposure. Similarly to infection with Salmonella, some cases of Campylobacter can cause severe symptoms and require hospitalization. Both Salmonella and Campylobacter can become dangerous infections, particularly for high-risk individuals.
Avian Influenza: Avian influenza is a viral infection carried by birds that can cause respiratory disease in people. At this point, avian influenza is a much lower risk for backyard poultry owners in the United States than the previously mentioned diseases. There have been no documented instances of severe human influenza cases in the United States at this time.
In other parts of the world, however, avian influenza has caused severe illness in people. Symptoms in people range from mild to severe, and can include fever, aches, sore throat, cough, fatigue, congestion, nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and organ failure. In severe cases, this disease can be life-threatening.
Because it can become such a serious disease, it is important to be aware of and on guard against potential infections.
Salmonella: This is a bacterium that birds may carry on their bodies or transmit in their droppings. People can be exposed by accidentally ingesting the bacteria. This can happen by contact with droppings, the birds themselves, infected eggs or meat, or even the environment where birds are kept. Things like cages, soil, plants, and feed dishes, and eggs may all become contaminated.
The bacteria may also be carried on the skin and clothing of people who have come in contact with the birds or their environment. Even birds who appear clean and healthy may carry Salmonella. When hands or contaminated items are put on or around a person’s mouth, that individual may become infected.
Campylobacter:Similar to Salmonella, this bacterium is transmitted when a person ingests contaminated food (meat or eggs), water, or stool from an infected animal.
Avian Influenza: This virus is carried by many types of birds, including wild aquatic birds and domestic poultry. Affected domestic poultry (like chicken, ducks, and turkey) will often experience decreased egg production, serious illness, or death. Wild waterfowl, however (such as geese, swans, and ducks) may appear healthy, even when infected. The saliva, mucous, and stool of an infected bird may carry the avian influenza virus. A human may become infected by inhalation or direct contact.
*Even healthy-looking birds can carry and spread each of these diseases*
Who is at risk?
Young children are at increased risk, because their immune systems are not as strong as an adult’s. Also, they are much more likely to place their hands, cups/pacifiers, or other items in their mouth. Other people who are at particularly risk are immune-compromised individuals (such as pregnant women or those taking immune-suppressing drugs), and the elderly.
How can I keep myself safe?
There are a few basic and very simple steps you can take to limit your risk of acquiring a zoonotic disease from poultry:
Wash your hands with soap and water right away after touching birds, their eggs, or their environment. Young children should have their hand-washing supervised by an adult. Though soap and water is best, if you do not have access running water, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Collect eggs often, and do not allow them time to collect dirt and bacteria.
If an egg is dirty, do not wash it with cold water, which can pull bacteria into the egg. Instead, clean it with fine sandpaper or a cloth.
After collecting eggs, keep them refrigerated.
Do not eat or drink in areas where poultry live or have access.
Do not allow poultry in homes or in areas where food is prepared or consumed.
Keep one pair of shoes devoted to poultry areas, and do not wear these shoes elsewhere, especially in the home. Individuals at increased risk should not handle live poultry. This includes children under the age of 5, pregnant women, immune-compromised people, and those over the age of 65.
Do not kiss birds or allow them near your face or mouth.
Be sure to wash hands thoroughly after handling birds or their environment before touching your face or mouth.
Do not bring gear used to care for poultry inside the home, even for cleaning.
Wear gloves when cleaning poultry housing and equipment
Tips for Maintaining Healthy Birds
Work with a veterinarian who has experience with poultry, and monitor your birds closely for changes or signs of illness.
Make sure your birds have a safe and appropriate outdoor housing setup, which includes a sturdy shelter.
Feed and water containers must be easily cleaned and disinfected.
1Coops with an attached run enclosure will keep your birds safe from predators.
When buying poultry, choose birds that are alert, bright, and active.
Buy birds from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP)voluntary Salmonella monitoring program.
Quarantine new birds for 30 days before introducing them to the rest of the flock
Keep coops and enclosures clean.
While raising backyard poultry can be enjoyable and rewarding, it is important to recognize that it must be done responsibly.
With hard work, care, and diligent sanitary measures,
you will have the best chance of keeping both yourself and your feathered friends as healthy as possible.
Behravesh CB. Do Backyard Chickens Pose Any Health Risks to Humans? Clinician’s Brief. 2018;16(3):60-61.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy Pets Healthy People >Pets and Other Animals > Farm Animals. https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/farm-animals/backyard-poultry.html CDC Website. Updated December 18, 2017. Accessed April 2, 2018.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Keeping Backyard Poultry. https://www.cdc.gov/features/salmonellapoultry/index.html CDC Website. Updated March 16, 2018. Accessed April 2, 2018.
Dr. Paul has a strong interest in avian and exotic animal medicine and surgery, as well as small animal internal medicine and surgery.
He has provided services for numerous breeders, kennels, aviaries, and mini zoos.