Have you ever noticed that kids never get sick at the same time? My youngest is laying like a puddle of water on the couch, recovering from the “gift” my daughter gave him. We did tell her it is good to share…..
It got me thinking about some of the risks of people getting sick when they get into backyard chickens. Like most things, the impressions people get from the media are skewed. The big media scare around chickens is naturally bird flu. Contagion, Outbreak, and a whole bunch of made-for-TV movies make it seem like we are poised on the brink of a world-wide viral catastrophe. What makes the stories so engaging is that they are plausible….it truly could happen. Of course, asteroids could collide with earth, the magnetic poles could reverse, or a rabid dog could terrorize a small Maine town.
Bird flu is a concern, but it is a risk that is minimal in North America. We have never had a bird-human transmissible flu virus on the continent. If we ever get “bird flu” in Canada, I will bet my next paycheck that it arrives on an airplane, carried by an infected person….likely from a country that is already dealing with a human outbreak.
There are risks with having backyard chickens, however. Having birds in your backyard means having poop in your backyard, and in your coop. Having poop in your backyard and coop means you have bacteria in your backyard and coop. Bacteria will occasionally will make you sick, if you get it in your body. Salmonella, E.coli, and Clostridium are all types of bacteria that can live in chickens that are a threat to human health.
The nice thing about eggs is that there is only really one bacteria that will contaminate the interior of an egg before it is laid. Salmonella enteritidis can live in the ovary of the hen, and be incorporated in the egg. The unfortunate thing is that S.e. doesn’t necessarily make the hen very ill….so you could possibly eat an egg from a contaminated hen without knowing it. The amount of money and time spent controlling this bacteria by professional farmers is staggering. We have programs of regular testing, and plans for what to do if the bacteria is ever found….even if we just find it in the environment, and NOT in any eggs. This makes our commercially available, graded eggs very safe. In your backyard, it is much more difficult to be sure…. It is expensive and technically difficult to isolate S.e. from a contaminated hen….let alone one who might, or might not have it. The thing to keep in mind is if anyone in your household, or anyone who eats eggs from your hens, gets sick with diarrhea (especially bloody) or a high fever, PLEASE let your doctor know that you have hens, and eat ungraded eggs…..catching an infection like this early is very important.
The main difference between having chickens and having a dog is that you are planning on eating stuff that comes out of your chicken. This means that the bacteria in your yard could easily be carried to your kitchen. Also, bacteria in your yard can get on hands and clothing easily….also adding risk for illness.
As I said above, the only real risk for contaminating the inside of the egg is Salmonella, but eggs come out of the hen moist and warm (>40 C). That means that if the egg lands in a contaminated spot, it can “suck” bacteria (especially E.coli) through pores in the shell, as it cools. It is crucial to keep the nest boxes clean, and be very careful with any egg that is not laid in the nest box. Also, the shell is a very good barrier to infection, but if the egg is cracked, contamination is a much bigger risk. Once a few bacteria get in through the shell’s defences, it is an ideal spot for the bacteria to thrive, and the number of bacteria will grow exponentially if the conditions are right.
Here is a bit of a checklist to decrease human health risks for urban farmers:
- Wash your hands EVERY time you interact with your chickens
- Have shoes dedicated to chores time. Leave them at the back door, and don’t walk through the house with them.
- Collect your eggs as soon as practical after they are laid….get your eggs in the morning if possible, ideally before they cool off completely.
- Be cautious with how you use eggs any time you have any signs of illness in your flock.
- Be careful with any eggs with obvious manure contamination, or have cracks…..look into proper handling of these eggs, or throw them out.
- Rinse your eggs in cool, running water after you pick them, then clean your sink with a disinfectant (ie bleach).
- Keep your eggs in the refrigerator to keep any bacteria in the egg from reproducing.
- Always cook your eggs well to help kill any bacteria that might be present.
- Don’t keep your chickens in the house, unless they are in a separate area, with a separate airspace….it is intimate contact with live birds that is a risk factor for influenza transmission from birds to people…..remember, in this situation, you are more likely to make your hens sick, than they are to infect you.
All these steps are simple, straight forward and free, but if you don’t respect the fact that you are producing food, and take the necessary care, the consequences can be significant.
Mike the Chicken Vet