If you follow the world of poultry at all, you’ll know that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have recently issued an advisory statement regarding a particular hatchery’s chicks being infected with Salmonella. It’s been very difficult for those who have found that their chicks originated from that particular hatchery and emotions, fear and denial have been running fairly high at many of the popular internet chicken water coolers.
The backyard chicken movement across the country is exploding. People are understanding the value and joy of keeping a small flock of birds for their own use or perhaps to share eggs with the community that are local in origin and humanely obtained. With the spread of the popularity of backyard chickens, also comes a lot of new folks who not only aren’t knowledgeable about backyard chicken raising, but also do not have the knowledge to follow biological safety. It’s not their fault. They simply don’t know what they don’t know.
In one of my previous positions, I was an infectious disease physician extender meaning that I rounded for the physician and saw his patients, evaluated their status and lab results and wrote progress notes that were later confirmed and signed off on by the attending doctor. During that time, I learned quite a bit about infectious disease, but I’m certainly not an expert and I’ll be honest about that right now. However, being in healthcare in general, you learn a tremendous amount about how disease is transmitted and what should be done to avoid that from happening. I thought I’d take a moment and list some friendly tips and some information about Salmonella.
Salmonella is an equal opportunity bacterium. It would like to live in you and if it decides that you’re a cool place to hang out, you’ll know about it. Gut-wrenching abdominal cramps, unbelievable diarrhea and fever are the typical symptoms. Someone on another page that I was reading mentioned that it’s not that common and you might not even know you have it. 1.2 MILLION cases are reported every year. Some of those people do okay, some are hospitalized because they are so severely dehydrated, some have lasting effects like joint pain and other damage to their bodies and some, frankly, die. I assure you, you’ll know you have it and so will everyone else at your house and maybe everyone else in your area because you’ll be doubled over on the commode yelling about your abdominal pain while your body tries to purge every molecule of water from it through your backside. This isn’t one of those overnight stomach bugs. This is one of those fluid and electrolyte draining, dehydrating, miserable situations that at some point during which you’re sure you’re dying. Salmonella and Salmonellosis is not anything to take lightly.
Prevention is the key when dealing with a bacterium like Salmonella. There is no cure other than supportive care and antibiotics are not always helpful because the darn bacterium keep figuring out ways to be resistant to the antibiotics that we’ve over used over the years. It’s not enough to say “well…it’s just diarrhea…it’s not going to kill you”, because it most certainly CAN kill a human especially if they are a child, elderly or immunosuppressed.
In order to prevent something from occurring, you have to understand how it occurs. Salmonella bacteria live in the GI tracts of animals. Those animals aren’t necessarily sick, but they are carriers and at various times, shed the bacteria through their feces. Humans encounter that feces in a variety of ways, none of which you want to think about too terribly much, because you are, after all, eating poop in order to come in contact with the bacteria. It can also spread through dust and animal dander and if you’ve ever been around a chicken, you know that not only are they atomic poop machines but they also are dusty, dandery and well, lets just be honest…downright dirty. Without going into too many details about how the condition is spread…because I’ll start screaming…let’s move on with tips on how to minimize your risk for contracting and spreading Salmonellosis or as I like to call it…common sense.
WASH YOUR HANDS
Every time you touch a chicken, touch anything in the coop, open the coop door, change water, add food to the feeder you’re at risk for picking up bacteria. I shouldn’t even have to tell you to wash your hands. Many people think a quick rinse under the kitchen sink is washing their hands. NO. Let me say that again…NO. When you utilize your kitchen sink to wash your grubby chicken poopy paws, you’re just introducing that bacteria into the area where you cook and wash dishes. STOP IT. Either keep hand sanitizer in your pocket to use on your way to the house (and you should do it before you touch that back door handle, by the way) OR keep antibacterial soap outside of the house near a water source and wash your hands before entering your home. When you wash your hands, you should do it long enough that you can sing the entire ABC song that you learned in kindergarten while you do it. Get under your nails with a scrub brush, do the backs of your hands and wrists because bacteria are sneaky. If you’ve only used hand sanitizer, you’ll still want to get under your nails and wash well with soap and water. Washing your hands is the number one single thing that you can do to protect yourself and your family. Make your children and your hubby or wife wash their hands often. You have no idea if they’ve been out petting chickens or giving them treats or maybe they found a hidden cache of eggs in the sandbox. You can not expect to stay healthy if you do not wash your hands. If you know your hands are contaminated by chickens…touch NOTHING in the house until you’ve washed your hands. You don’t want to be the one with chicken poop under your nails from cleaning up one of your girl’s dirty, poopy vents and then come into the house and answer the phone. Don’t take anything into the coop that you do not want contaminated. That includes your children and your dog that likes to eat chicken poop and then kiss you on the lips. Use bleach wipes to regularly disinfect the area around your sink and your door knobs on entrances and exits that are high traffic for your family. Using that rich chicken poop compost in your garden? Make SURE you’ve washed your hands and under your nails after you’ve worked in the garden and wash any food from the garden before you consume it. You’ll thank me later.
For Pete’s sake, don’t wear your good shoes that you want to wear anyplace else into the chicken coop or anyplace else for that matter where the chickens are leaving precious chicken poop presents for you. I have three pairs of shoes/boots that are chicken coop only footwear. I don’t wear them into the house and I don’t wear them in public and it’s not because they’re ugly, it’s because I’ve been walking around in chicken bedding and they aren’t fussy about where they poop and when you’re chasing a chicken in the coop, you aren’t fussy about where you step. Get yourself some ugly shoes from the discount store and a pair of boots and make those your permanent coop shoes. Take them off before you go into the house and leave them in the garage on newspaper or on something that you can disinfect. Tracking chicken poop all over your living quarters is inevitable if you wear your coop shoes into the house…and we all know what that means. Even though you don’t see it, it’s on the floor. Let’s say you set your purse or gym bag on the floor or your child’s back pack and then unthinking, you pick it up and put it on the counter or the table. The bottom of your purse and bags that you set down in public places are simply filthy. Hang them from the back of a chair instead of throwing them on the floor where someone (probably your kids) have walked and probably tracked in chicken poop that they stepped in outside. Educate your children. They don’t want to get sick either and it’s never too early to learn common sense sanitation practices.
WEAR AN APRON.
Cover up your clothes if you’re going to be working in close contact with your flock. An apron can save you from chicken poopy clothes and from dander and dust. They aren’t a perfect solution, but unless you like doing laundry and changing your clothes every time you come back to the house, they are helpful and will save you a ton of time in the laundry room. Wash them frequently in hot soapy water and you might want to just do a chicken clothes load of laundry. Just a suggestion. Your family will give you grief about the apron and when they do tell them you’re doing it so they don’t get flaming diarrhea and leave it at that. “YOU CAN JUST THANK THIS APRON FOR NOT HAVING FLAMING DIARRHEA” and then spin on your heel and leave the room. That usually gets them.
LEAVE THEM OUTSIDE.
As much as I love my chickens, and I really do love them, they are NOT allowed in the house. They never were kept in the house and I would no more consider allowing them to live in the house at any age, than I would consider living in their house. Chickens are carriers for many things that make humans sick. They don’t belong in your living environment. They are animals and they aren’t clean animals. They are indiscriminate poopers and they belong in an environment where they can indiscriminately poop. You can argue with me until you’re blue…chickens need to be outside or outside of your living area anyway, from the DAY you bring them home or they hatch. They are not clean animals. You will get sick in some form or another and your feathered room mates will probably be somehow involved with that. Trust me…you don’t want to hear my “I Told You So” song…because it also comes with a dance.
STOP KISSING THEM.
Really? Do I have to tell you that? Come on…they sleep in their own poop…they walk in their own poop and then they scratch their face with their scaly poopy foot. Do I really need to tell you not to kiss them on their darling cheek?
Alright. Your kids are cute, the chickens are cute…look how cute they are together….AWWWWW. Little Susan likes to kiss the chickens and play with them outside…and oh look…she’s eating a cookie. Do you see where I’m going with this? Children should be taught proper hand washing so that they know every time they’ve touched the chickens or been outside that they should wash their hands. They probably have learned about singing the ABC’s while they wash their hands at school. Ask them…they’ll teach you. And make them leave their shoes in the garage! If they’ve been running around where your chickens free range, those shoes are most likely stomping on poop while they’re outside. Common sense stuff. Shoes….in the garage…clothes…changed when you come in…hands….WASHED before you do ANYTHING else. Those should be the rules for children in your home. And tell them to leave the chickens alone if they don’t understand. Kids are not nearly as cute when they are spewing poop and crying from stomach pain or lying in a hospital bed.
I’m glad that I have chickens, but I’ve been vigilant about germs from the first moment we set eyes on them at the farm store. I just hate stomach ailments. I’d rather chew tinfoil than throw-up or have nausea. Being an RN, I’m a bit of a freak about it, but I’ve just given you some easy things that you can do to minimize your risk for illness. If you purchased your chicks from this hatchery with the Salmonella contamination, I would recommend that you contact your local farm extension office for advice regarding their future with you. I don’t want to sound callous, because I would be devastated if it were my birds, but if yours test positive for Salmonella you are endangering not only yourself and your own family, but you’re endangering any human who might come in contact with you, your flock, and your eggs.
The Centers for Disease Control have a great website that can educate you about preventing disease. I was also on the The Chicken Whisperer’s page today and he’s been doing radio shows with scholars and veterinarians and I understand that tomorrow the hatchery owner of the place with contamination may be joining the show as well as someone from chain of farm stores that sold chicks from this hatchery. You can find information here about The Chicken Whisperer’s live radio program.
Just use common sense. Stay healthy. And for Pete’s sake go wash your hands.