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Are Backyard Chickens Bad for Your Health?

If you keep chickens or other poultry in your backyard, wash your hands after handling them and don’t let them roam in your home. (Getty Images)

If you’re thinking of keeping live poultry in your backyard, take care: That fluffy little fella may carry salmonella. While the 10 recent multistate outbreaks investigated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are over, the possibility of infection remains.

Pet-related health risks aren’t confined to backyard chickens, turkeys, duck or geese. Turtles and toads also can spread germs to people. And although it’s unlikely, that adorable doggy in the window might make you or your child sick.

Here’s what you should know about safe choosing and healthy handling of household and backyard animals.

[See: Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?]

Poultry Precautions

It’s becoming increasingly popular for families, rural and urban alike, to keep live poultry. It’s satisfying to collect your own eggs, and chicks give kids a chance to learn to care for small animals – plus they get to see them hatch.

The problem is that some poultry carry salmonella germs in their droppings. Also hidden in beaks, feathers and feet, these germs cause diarrheal illness. Cages, bird coops, feeding dishes and nearby plants and soil can hold these germs. Germs may land on the clothing and hands of people who tend to or touch poultry.

From Jan. 4 to Sept. 22, 2017, the live backyard poultry-related outbreaks reported by the CDC affected 1,120 people in 48 states and the District of Columbia. Of those who became ill, nearly 250 were hospitalized, with one death reported in North Carolina.

The CDC findings show that of the people infected with salmonella who were hospitalized, young children made up a significantly higher proportion, points out Dr. Larry Pickering, an adjunct professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. “Those less than 5 years of age, the elderly and the immune-compromised are three groups of people that we really worry about it,” he says.

 

It’s easier for youngsters, whose immune systems are still developing, to get sick. Hand-washing is the best way to prevent salmonella infection.

However, small children and toddlers tend not to practice good hygiene. “Any contamination they get on their hands oftentimes goes to their mouth,” Pickering says. “If they get diarrhea due to salmonella or Campylobacter organisms, frequently found in the stools of chicken, they can become very seriously ill and be hospitalized.”

Follow these tips from the CDC and pediatricians to keep your family’s experience with poultry enjoyable and disease-free:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after touching live poultry or anything in their surroundings. Hand sanitizer is a second choice if soap and water aren’t available.
  • Keep your face away from poultry: That means no kissing or snuggling them and then touching your mouth.
  • As a parent, be vigilant in monitoring children’s hand-washing, and teach them how to protect themselves.
  • Don’t allow poultry to roam inside the house, particularly in dining, cooking or pantry areas.
  • Keep a set of shoes designated for poultry care and handling outside the home.
  • It’s safer for kids under 5, adults over 65 and people with weakened immune systems to completely avoid handling live poultry.
  • Before buying birds, ask hatcheries if they participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s voluntary salmonella-monitoring program.
  • Clean and maintain bird coops to keep eggs clean. Dispose of cracked eggs. Refrigerate and thoroughly cook collected eggs.

Parents should mention they have pets to their pediatrician or family doctor, says Dr. Deborah Bloch, a physician and pediatric infectious disease fellow at Emory University who treats kids at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

You should also know where your animal was raised. “With hatcheries, people are operating online; you can’t ever be sure where animals come from,” Bloch says. “So be a responsible consumer in that sense.”

Puppy Safety

While it’s usually safe to bring a puppy home from a pet store, you need to be cautious.

On Dec. 13, the CDC updated its advisory on a multistate outbreak of multidrug-resistant infections caused by Campylobacter and linked to contact with pet store puppies. According to the CDC, Campylobacter causes about 1.3 million illnesses in the U.S. yearly, usually related to eating or contact with raw or undercooked poultry. Other cases may be due to contaminated water or contact with animals. Most resolve without medical treatment.

With the pet store outbreak, nearly 100 cases of Campylobacter infections in 17 states have caused 22 hospitalizations since June 2016, with the most recent illness having started on Oct. 23.

The recent outbreak likely came from puppies sold through the Petland store chain, according to evidence evaluated by the CDC. About 80 percent of people became sick either through direct contact with puppies from a store, or through contact with a person who got sick. Pet store workers made up about one-quarter of those sickened.

Of popular pets such as turtles and lizards (reptiles); frogs and toads (amphibians) and poultry, “You can assume that, basically, these three classifications have salmonella or Campylobacter in their stools,” Pickering says. “Dogs and cats have various parasites and can also acquire some of these [intestinal germs]. In pet stores, the environment is there if there’s any mixing and lack of hand-washing. So you handle a reptile and then you handle a dog – you can see where it would easily spread.”

Because animals carry these organisms without showing symptoms, you don’t know they have these infections. “Animals seem healthy and they pass it on to children, who don’t stay healthy,” Pickering says.

Take these steps to care for your new puppy or dog while keeping your family healthy:

  • Look for a dog that’s alert, bright and playful when choosing your pet.
  • Take your dog to the veterinarian within a few days for a thorough checkup.
  • If your dog shows signs of illness soon after arriving, such as being sluggish or tired, not eating or having diarrhea, take him or her to the vet. Let the original pet shop, breeder or rescue group know. Clean the sick dog’s environment with a solution of bleach and water.
  • Clean up after your dog with disposable gloves, then wash your hands. Immediately clean up any dog pee, poop or vomit in your home. Disinfect the area.
  • Avoid having pets lick people around the mouth, face, open wounds or broken skin.
  • “With pets, we usually don’t recommend puppies lick children’s faces, but of course that happens,” Bloch says. “For parents to know how to mitigate the risk is really important – and that’s through washing.”

Keep up with veterinary appointments to ensure your dog is healthy and prevent disease from spreading. “Just like children, pets need their immunizations,” Pickering says.

 

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