Please don’t kiss your chickens!

At your local Tractor Supply, Rural King, and farm supply stores, “Chick Days” are in full swing with Easter right around the corner.

This means the inevitable sounds of chicks peeping, ducklings quacking, and children and adults alike squealing from the uncontrollable cuteness. However, this is also the time of year that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) begins to see a spike in Salmonella cases attributed to, what I affectionately call, “Chicken Kissing.”

In 2017, the CDC reported 1,120 cases of Salmonella bacterial infections related to poultry in the lower 48 states.

Of those reported, 22 percent of people were hospitalized and one case resulted in death. Bacteria inhabit the world around us and within us. We each have a colony of bacteria living within our bodies that help us digest food, absorb nutrients, and remove waste. There are more bacteria in one person’s gut than there are people living on our planet.

Most bacteria are non-pathogenic (unlikely to cause disease,) but some are pathogenic (very likely to cause disease.) So, if bacteria are really everywhere, why are poultry the problem?

Salmonella bacteria naturally occur as a part of the microbiome of people, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, turtles, poultry, and thousands of other species. They are within our organs, on our hands, and in the environment around us. We have trillions of bacteria in our guts, but may not look or feel sick. The same can be said for poultry.

A completely healthy looking bird may be a carrier of Salmonella without obvious signs of disease. When birds are carriers, they shed bacteria through their feces and mucous membranes. Humans can become infected when live poultry, eggs, and manure are mishandled. Salmonella, like most pathogenic bacteria, are opportunistic by nature and wait for the perfect time to attack.

Children under 5-years, adults over 65, and those with weakened immune systems are at a considerably higher risk of Salmonella infection because of their body’s inability to initiate a full immune response. How do we prevent Salmonella infections in poultry to keep ourselves and our backyard flocks safe?

Baby chicks, ducklings, and even adult poultry can be incredibly cute, fluffy, and fun to keep as pets. Like most pet owners, poultry keepers have been known to be quite affectionate. That being said, please do not kiss your chickens or snuggle them close to your face and mouth. This intimate exposure considerably increases the risk of Salmonella transmission. Other effective preventative methods are:

– Washing hands with soap and water immediately after handling live poultry, eggs, manure, and equipment.

— Adults should supervise young children’s hand washing. Antibacterial hand sanitizer can be used if soap and water are unavailable.

– Children under 5, adults over 65, and people with weakened immune systems should not handle live poultry.

— Poultry should be kept away from hospitals, schools, childcare centers, and nursing homes to prevent opportunistic infections.

– Safely cleaning and disinfecting coops. Remove dust, dirt, litter, and manure first, then disinfect the equipment or housing with an approved chemical disinfectant.

–Set aside separate clothes and shoes to wear while feeding and caring for your flock.

– Keeping live poultry outside the home.

–If you must keep poultry inside, separate them from food preparation and storage areas.

– Source healthy birds to begin or add to your flock.

–The United States Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP) has a voluntary Salmonella Monitoring Program for most mail-order and bulk chick hatcheries. While these birds may be deemed Salmonella-free, they are free from infection, not from the bacteria themselves.

— Avoid buying birds from auctions or swaps without health guarantees.

— Monitor daily, the health of your flock. When issues arise, contact a veterinarian or poultry professional.

– Cook eggs and poultry meat completely before consumption.

It is also important to note that the CDC monitors Salmonella cases originating from other sources than just poultry. Salmonella infections have been caused by contaminated fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, chia seeds, microbiology laboratory exposure, pet turtles and lizards, rodents, dairy calves, pet guinea pigs, raw tuna, shell eggs, and chicken salad. Backyard poultry are not the only culprit when it comes to foodborne illness. However, due to their popularity and lack of consistent education surrounding keeping of backyard poultry, Salmonella cases have erupted.

Safety is key when it comes to keeping any communicable disease at bay. Backyard poultry projects can be fun for the whole family, when operating under safe and monitored conditions. By all means, hold, talk to, spend time with, and enjoy your backyard flocks. Just be sure to wash your hands, and please don’t kiss your chickens.

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Emily Lhamon is a Poultry Extension Educator educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension, she can be reached at 717-248-9618 (Mifflin County Office) or 717-436-7744 (Juniata County Office).

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