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Fowl love: Kissing chickens could make you sick, CDC says

Many owners of backyard flocks have unsafe practices -- too much contact, letting them into the house -- which is contributing to an increase in salmonella outbreaks.

By
Stephen Feller
While there's nothing wrong with keeping backyard chickens, either as pets or for food, CDC researchers say improper handling of the birds -- including kissing, snuggling and allowing them into the house -- is contributing to significant increases in salmonella outbreaks in recent years. Photo by Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock
While there's nothing wrong with keeping backyard chickens, either as pets or for food, CDC researchers say improper handling of the birds -- including kissing, snuggling and allowing them into the house -- is contributing to significant increases in salmonella outbreaks in recent years. Photo by Goran Bogicevic/Shutterstock

ATLANTA, Sept. 15 (UPI) -- Keeping a pet and showering it with love is a good thing, unless you've got backyard chickens and insist on kissing and snuggling them -- the animals may appreciate the attention, but there's a chance of salmonella infection.

The increased prevalence of backyard and pet chickens in the United States has introduced a higher risk for salmonella outbreaks, according to a new study and warning released today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Although salmonella is typically transmitted through food, direct and indirect exposure to animals can also help the bacteria spread. As a growing number of people have started keeping chickens at their homes, however, adult and newborn live chickens have increasingly been linked to multistate outbreaks.

"The practice of keeping backyard flocks of live poultry has gained popularity during the past decade," CDC researchers write in the study, published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. "This increase is attributable to various reasons, including growing interest in local and organic food production, animal welfare concerns, environmental concerns, the desire to provide a learning experience for children, and the perception that local eggs are healthier and of better quality than store-bought eggs."

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Many of these fowl owners are new to keeping chickens and have had them for less than a year, according to the study, so researchers surmise some of the problem is that people don't know the risks of improperly caring for them.

Less than two months ago, the CDC issued a warning for people with backyard chickens as it investigated eight salmonella outbreaks linked to illnesses in 45 states since January.

In the new study, CDC researchers found there were 53 live-poultry associated salmonellosis, or LPAS, outbreaks between 1990 and 2014, resulting in 2,630 illnesses, 387 hospitalizations and five deaths. Of the outbreaks, 77 percent affected multiple states and had a median size of 26 patients.

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Between 2006 and 2014, there were an average of four LPAS outbreaks per year, compared to 1.06 per year from 1990 to 2005. About 62 percent of patients in the outbreaks were exposed to baby poultry, and 85 percent of those patients had been around baby chickens.

Aside from general exposure to chickens, the CDC reports improper handling of the birds is connected to many of the LPAS cases: 76 percent had touched baby chickens, 61 percent had touched their cages, 49 percent reported snuggling their baby chickens and 13 percent said they kissed them.

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Although the running recommendation is to not let chickens inside your house -- 58 percent of owners are aware of the risks -- a healthy portion of owners apparently don't care.

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Researchers report that 46 percent of owners keep chickens in their houses, 22 percent allow them in the living room, 12 percent have live chickens roaming the kitchen, 10 percent let chickens in their bedrooms and 10 percent allow them in the bathroom.

Rather than suggesting people give up their flock, whether they are pets or being raised for eggs or slaughter, the CDC suggests better education of the public about handling chickens -- at least through its One Health outreach program -- could help reduce the increasing prevalence of salmonella outbreaks.

"Poultry are acquiring a new position in many households -- instead of being treated as production animals, they are increasingly being considered household pets," researchers wrote in the study. "However, recurring LPAS outbreaks highlight the need for strategies to prevent human illnesses associated with live poultry contact through a comprehensive One Health approach involving human, animal and environmental health."

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