For the media

Don’t hug your duck or cuddle your chicken

By The Health News Team | January 27, 2023
Little boy feeding chickens

The average rate for a dozen eggs in the U.S. is now a whopping $4.25. That’s more than double what you paid a year ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports. This leaves many people wondering if they should get their eggs from another source: their own backyards.

While the rush on “pandemic puppies” received most of the media attention over the past few years, there was a similar surge in the popularity of backyard chickens, purchased both to be pets and provide eggs. In fact, there was such great interest during the first few months of the pandemic that many hatcheries and feed stores — a common seller of chicks to the public — sold out.

Unfortunately, along with all those chickens came a surge of salmonella illness in the U.S. linked to backyard chickens as well as some ducks. This prompted Dr. Jyotu Sandhu, a family medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, to share one vital piece of advice with his poultry-loving patients: Don’t hug your pet duck or cuddle that pet chicken.

“We shouldn’t cuddle or kiss our chickens,” Dr. Sandhu says. “They are able to pass diseases, such as salmonella infection, to humans through direct contact. This is particularly important for young kids under 5 years of age, as many cases are seen in this population.”

Salmonella infection can be serious

According to Dr. Sandhu, exposure to salmonella — a bacteria that lives in human and animal intestines and is shed through feces — commonly leads to infection among children and people with compromised immunity. About 1.35 million people are infected by salmonella each year, with symptoms usually beginning 6 hours or more after infection and lasting up to 7 days. Though, some people’s bowel habits may not return to normal for months.

Common symptoms of salmonella infection include:

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Abdominal pain

  • Diarrhea

“Many people don’t need antibiotics to treat their salmonella infection, and most improve within a week with rest and proper hydration and nutrition,” Dr. Sandhu says. “But severe infections that are not resolving may need medical care, including IV fluids and antibiotics.”

If salmonella infection goes untreated, it can lead to an infection in the urine, blood, bones, joints or the nervous system, and can cause severe disease. Some people with salmonella infection develop painful reactive arthritis after the infection has ended, which can last for years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates salmonella bacteria cause about 26,500 hospitalizations and 420 deaths in the U.S. every year.

Caring for chickens is no easy chore

Beyond the risk of salmonella, raising backyard chickens can be very challenging. Chickens usually live 3 to 7 years but can live up to 12 years. They are also prolific poopers.

Heifer International, a nonprofit that provides livestock and training to communities in need, notes that potential owners should consider the following:

  • Whether municipal codes in their area allow residential chickens

  • Whether they have enough space for a coop and yard

  • Whether they can afford and are willing to spend the time and money necessary to appropriately feed, water, care for and clean up after chickens, which are able to produce roughly 45 pounds of poop each year

  • Whether they are willing to wait until their chickens start laying eggs, generally around 6 months of age, and keep them after egg production slows, around age 2 or so

How to be “eggs-tra” careful

If you do choose to have pet chickens, Dr. Sandhu recommends following the CDC’s safety guidelines. At the top of his safety tip list: Wash your hands frequently.

You should also:

  • Be safe around poultry. Don’t kiss, hold or touch backyard poultry and then touch your face or mouth. Don’t let backyard poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served or stored, and don’t eat or drink where poultry live or roam.

  • Supervise kids around poultry. Always supervise children around poultry and while they wash their hands after being around poultry. Children younger than age 5 shouldn’t handle or touch chicks, chickens, ducklings or other poultry.

  • Handle eggs safely. Collect eggs often and throw away any cracked eggs. Don’t wash warm, fresh eggs — cold water can pull germs into the egg. Refrigerate eggs after collection to maintain freshness and slow germ growth.

It is also recommended that you cook the eggs you collect properly to avoid salmonella infection. Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm. Egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F or higher.

Learn more about safe pet ownership from the CDC.

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