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Raising Backyard Chickens? Watch out for Salmonella

Updated on October 17, 2017
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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I live in a densely populated region of southern New England with city folks, for the most part, so raising chickens in the backyard is a relatively new pastime for us.

It took hold in the early 2000s, which prompted municipalities to address the issue of livestock being raised in neighborhoods that are zoned residential.

Providence, Rhode Island, was one of the first metropolitan cities in the area to enact new zoning regulations.

It allowed people in the city to maintain six hens on their property. Housing and sanitation regulations were also established pertaining to the girls.

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Nothing Like a Fresh Egg

A lot of communities followed Providence’s lead and altered zoning and health regulations to accommodate the increasingly popular trend of urbanites and suburbanites getting back to basics and raising some of their own food.

Most municipalities follow their state’s regulations but add ordinances as local situations warrant.

In general, guidelines regulate how chickens must be housed and otherwise contained, and how manure is to be disposed of.

They also regulate how far from property lines the coop must be situated, and require that the flock be registered with the health department.

Health agents perform inspections, usually unannounced, to be sure that zoning and health regulations are being adhered to.

Your coop should provide indoor and outdoor space that protects the chickens from airborne and terrestrial predators.

Hawks and owls will swoop down and fly off with a chicken, and from the ground, coyotes and other mammals will invade the hen yard.

In addition, the coop should contain roosts (simple poles for them to sit on) and a separate nesting box in which they can lay their eggs.

A proper nesting box will have a sliding door or lift-door opening in the back, from which you can extract the eggs without having to go into the coop.

There are a number of quality coops on the market that come as assemble-it-yourself kits. They contain all the elements necessary for a proper coop.

Governmental Resources

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and most state and county agricultural agencies provide free publications that address all aspects of backyard chicken flocks.

Each agency's website gives instructions on obtaining materials by phone or online, and organizations needing several copies can get them in bulk.

Brochures cover topics from how to build a coop to maintaining proper sanitation.

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The latter is a huge consideration. They call it biosecurity and they can’t stress it enough (and for very good reasons).

Chickens carry salmonella, E. coli, diseases such as bird flu, and other pathogens that can cause sickness ranging from minor skin infections to serious illnesses that can cause death.

Sadly, many people don’t take the warning seriously and, therefore, don’t follow good sanitation practices.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), during the summer of 2012, confirmed 961 victims in a Salmonella outbreak that had been traced to backyard poultry flocks in 48 states and the District of Columbia.

Only Alaska and Delaware had yet to report salmonella outbreaks.

The agency confirmed one death but didn’t indicate in which state it occurred. They also reported that by mid-August of 2017, there had already been more reports of salmonella that could be traced to backyard flocks than in all of 2016.

In late August of 2017, CDC officials reported that they and various state officials were tracking 10 separate outbreaks that had been traced to backyard poultry pens.

They expected the outbreak to expand over the ensuing months.

Be sure to supervise small children when tending to the flock

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As one might expect, preschoolers account for a third of the 961 reported cases. The report I read didn’t indicate what percentage of children above preschool age make up the remaining two-thirds of the cases, but I’d guess it’s a large segment.

Kids are more likely to cuddle and kiss the birds, and they’re less likely to wash up afterwards. They love to gather eggs, but aren’t inclined to wash their hands either, as good sanitation practices would dictate.

Children younger than 5, older adults, and people with weakened immune systems, are more vulnerable.

For most healthy people, symptoms can range from mild to severe, and include diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps.

Symptoms begin 12 to 72 hours after coming in contact with the bacteria, and usually last four to seven days. Severe cases can result in hospitalization.

In fact, by mid-July of 2017, the CDC reported that 174 people had been hospitalized as a result of salmonella outbreaks.

They suspected the number may even be higher because the information was incomplete.

Prevention Is the Key

  • Always wash hands with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds after handling live poultry.
  • Don’t allow live poultry in the house.
  • Don’t allow children younger than 5 to handle or touch live poultry and eggs without supervision.
  • Never cuddle or kiss the birds or let them touch your face or mouth.
  • Do not eat or drink while around live poultry.
  • Wear a surgical type mask when raking, sweeping, or otherwise raising dust in the coop or pen

Should You Wash Freshly Gathered Eggs?

Washing freshly gathered eggs is probably a good idea, but there is some debate about the practice.

The shell of the egg is porous, and before transiting the cloaca, is coated with a protective substance referred to as the bloom.

The bloom seals the egg to prevent bacteria from contaminating the chick that's developing inside.

The cloaca is also the exit point for the hen's waste products, residue from which can contaminate the surface of the egg shell.

Washing the egg removes the waste residue, but it also removes the bloom, leaving the egg vulnerable to bacterial infection.

Therefore, it's important to refrigerate the washed eggs immediately.

There are those who say not to wash the egg, others who say do wash the egg, some who say use warm soapy water, some who say use just warm water, others who say dry wash with paper towel only, and others, still, who say simply scratch the crud off with your fingernail.

Keep in mind that once the visible crud is popped off, microscopic bacteria can still remain.

Because the egg doesn't have its own personal "birth canal," and uses the same pathway that the waste uses, I vote for washing the egg quickly in warm, soapy water, then rinse with warm water.

I say quickly because once the bloom is washed off, stuff can get through the pores on the shell's surface. Refrigerate immediately after washing.

Bottom line: it's your call.

© 2017 Bob Bamberg

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Nothing like fresh eggs, is there, Dianna? Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 months ago

      When I lived in southern Indiana I was so blessed to have fresh eggs from a neighbor's hens. I enjoyed your share on this topic. I agree, most children do not see the importance of washing after handling animals. Great advice!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Nice to see you, Heidi, and I agree...the extra work just would't be worth it. I don't have a discriminating palate...we once bought a fresh slaughtered turkey from a local turkey farm and I'm embarrassed to admit that, to me, it didn't taste any different than the frozen supermarket turkey that takes a week to defrost in the fridge. The same with the eggs. I've had fresh, and the taste, to me, was the same...although the yokes stayed together better with the fresh eggs. But, most people would disagree with me, though. They taste a difference. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 2 months ago from Chicago Area

      I'm not one to increase my workload. I don't need fresh eggs that badly. Besides, my dog would have a heyday chasing the poor dears around. :) Thanks for the info on this green living trend!

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi, FlourishAnyway, nice to see you. I'm always washing my hands. I wrote a hub about the importance of handwashing a couple of years ago and took some good-natured heat from Dr. Mark. The empirical evidence is that most people don't wash their hands after handling raw meat, using the bathroom, and engaging in other unsanitary behaviors, yet very few get sick. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 months ago from USA

      Aww, see this is why I couldn't have a flock even if my zoning laws allowed it. They'd be cuddled and might even be kissed as pets. Only half kidding. My brother has a farm and my dad, a food scientist, has brought up these potential hazards. It's not something you go into without knowing what you're doing. Sanitation is key. I was raised with hand washing almost being a religion!