Salmonella in Backyard Flocks

This came across my inbox a little while ago, and I thought I would share it with you.  It is a news article on the uptick in Salmonella infections and illnesses associated with backyard hens.

DENVER – As the urban farming movement continues to grow in Colorado, health officials are raising a red flag about Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.

There is particular concern about people bringing chickens into their homes and treating them as pets or “lap chickens,” complete with chicken diapers.

Mary, a Denver resident who did not want to reveal her last name, has even launched a business selling the diapers.

“They’re just really, really tame, and they want to be near humans,” said Mary, petting her two chickens, Henny and Penny. “I wouldn’t have them in the house all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to let them in.”

But in a CDC warning, health officials said they are investigating two large, multistate outbreaks of Salmonella tied to backyard flocks.

One strain sickened people in 37 states, including 31 people in Colorado. One person died from that strain.

Some people were reportedly “kissing or cuddling with” the birds, according to CDC investigators.

The CDC said even poultry that appears healthy and clean can still be shedding germs that make people sick, and chickens should not be allowed inside people’s homes.

Candice Burns Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Emergening and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases with the CDC, said in an email to 23ABC’s affiliate, 7NEWS: “Just like you wouldn’t walk around your house and touch surfaces with raw, uncooked chicken, you also shouldn’t allow your live poultry to have contact with surfaces in your home.”

In 2012 alone, public health officials uncovered eight outbreaks in which people got sick with germs spread from contact with poultry in backyard flocks.  These outbreaks caused at least 517 illnesses, 93 hospitalizations and fours deaths, according to the CDC.

Health officials said that for every case of Salmonella illness reported to the CDC, there are about 30 more that don’t get reported.

The people most at risk for getting a serious illness from contact with live poultry include young children, people with weakened immune systems and adults older than 65 years.

People become infected with Salmonella germs when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with animal droppings in or around their mouth.

Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths.

“I never had a problem, and I don’t think most people would,” said Mary.

She said there is no difference between her chickens and other bird pets, except her chickens give something back.

“See, there you go,” she said, lifting up a brown egg. “I love fresh eggs.”

Chickens and Salmonella go together like, well my kid’s fingerprints and the iPad.  You can sometimes clean them out, but they will always come back.  Not to mention the E. coli, Pseudemonas, Campylobacter and Clostridium that are often carried silently by apparently healthy hens.  This doesn’t mean your chickens are “dirty bombs” that need to be approached only with a hazmat suit (if you’re bored, google the bacteria that are found in your own mouth…..blech).  The point is, you need to assume that anything the hens have contact with MIGHT be contaminated with potentially sickening bacteria.

Healthy? No.  Child abuse? Maybe. Don't let your chicken lick you, either.

Healthy? No. Child abuse? Maybe. Don’t let your chicken lick you, either.

DON’T lick your chickens…’s not healthy, and people will think you’re weird.  You will be swapping bacteria with your hens in any case, but there’s no need to be that direct.  Remember, we become immune to what we are in contact with…this means that the bacteria in your backyard will set up an accommodation with you, and you will usually cope with it fine.  This is not necessarily true of visitors.


Most cleaners are effective.  Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

Most cleaners are effective. Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

So, keep it in mind….chickens, like all animals are a source for bacteria.  Take reasonable precautions, and don’t become blasé about it.   Mention to your doctor that you have chickens if you have a gut infection.  Wash your hands.  Clean any surface your chickens aren’t supposed to be on (ie, the sink, if you give one a bath). Only eat un-cracked eggs.  Handle soiled eggs appropriately.  Inform people who eat your eggs that they are from your flock, and not from a store.

Simple things.  Hopefully a waste of time, but if not, it may save you some unpleasantness.

Mike the Chicken Vet


6 responses to “Salmonella in Backyard Flocks

  1. Hi Mike,
    Great to have you back!

  2. Thanks for sharing this useful information. I am curious about your thoughts on suggestions that have been made that eating chicken meat and eggs is at best unsanitary and at worst unsafe. For example, one study in the UK found that most chicken meat contains bacteria ( and there are many more studies that agree. Perhaps, since so many of us love the company of chickens so much, we should simply keep them around as companion animals without any though to eating them or their eggs. Your thoughts?

    • Hi indralokaanimalsanctuary;

      I believe that people should have the right to decide for themselves what they want to eat. I think that the comment that eating eggs and meat is unsanitary stems from a misconception regarding bacteriology and the normal presence of bacteria all around us. The article states that 65% of chicken carcasses were found to have traces of Campylobacter. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that there is an “infective dose”, or amount of a bacteria you would need to ingest in order to become sick from a bacteria. Canada’s public health organization states for Campylobacter that “INFECTIOUS DOSE: 500 organisms by ingestion. One volunteer study found that 9000 bacteria were required to infect 50 percent of subjects”. The study doesn’t indicate how many chickens with “traces of the bacteria” would have been infected enough to make you sick, even if you ate them raw.
      Secondly, bacteria are all around….a quick check shows that 40% of sprouts are contaminated with E. coli (Int J Food Microbiol. 2008 Mar 31;123(1-2):121-9. doi: 10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2007.12.013. Epub 2008 Jan 30.) at a rate of over 15,000,000 bacteria per gram, and that 27.1% of spinach had E. coli (J Food Prot. 2009 Feb;72(2):415-20.), at a rate of over 1000 per gram. The contamination rates of computer keyboards (95.5%) and fridge handles have an average of 7,474 germs per 100cm2.

      This just goes to show that the contamination rate of chicken is not exceptionally high….bacteria are everywhere, in astounding numbers. Professional farmers are investing huge amounts of time and effort to making food safe, and reducing bacterial loads, but eradication is impossible. If you feel that you would rather only have hens as pets, and forego eating eggs or chicken, that is a decision only you can make, but if you are doing it for strictly bactierial reasons, you should take the time to swab your hands after you handle your hens, or check the handle of your back door. The results will surprise you.


  3. Cook your chicken to the right temperature, and use a thermometer to be sure.
    Health Canada pegs the risk of an egg in Canada being internally contaminted with Salmonella enteritidis (the pathogen of concern in eggs) at 1.7 contaminated eggs for every 1 million eggs. This means that if you eat eggs like the average Canadian, you will eat a contaminated egg every 3200 – 3500 years.
    I don’t think you have to worry too much about eating chicken or eggs in Canada, and Mike is right – you are far more likely to get sick from having a chicken as a pet than from eating eat, provided you don’t eat it raw.

  4. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

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