Look, I get it. Your fluffy backyard flock is a source of never-ending joy, delicious fresh eggs, and hilarious antics. Sometimes you just want to scoop up a hen and give her a big fat kiss on the head because she’s so dang cute. Here’s the thing: Don’t.
You of all people should know by now—considering you, a chicken owner, likely did a bunch of research about chickens before getting them—that snuggling and kissing chickens or other poultry, or putting your hands in your mouth after you handle them, is a very stupid thing to do.
You should know this because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has for years warned everyone that chickens and other fowl are a dangerous source of Salmonella bacteria, which can cause fever, bloody diarrhea, uncontrollable vomiting, and even death.
The CDC this week updated an investigation notice warning that the number of known Salmonella infections has risen to 464 cases in 46 states, from 163 in May. Of those, 103 people were hospitalized and one person died. As my colleague Ed Cara noted last month, these numbers are likely undercounts, because many less severe Salmonella infections may go unreported.
“Backyard poultry, like chicken and ducks, can carry Salmonella germs even if they look healthy and clean. These germs can easily spread to anything in the areas where the poultry live and roam,” the CDC writes. “You can get sick from touching your backyard poultry or anything in their environment and then touching your mouth or food, and swallowing Salmonella germs.”
According to the CDC, one in three of the people who’ve become ill from Salmonella are children, which is understandable: Kids likely don’t know any better, which is why it’s on parents who have chickens at home to properly supervise and inform kids who might come in contact with chickens, their eggs, or the mountains of crap they produce to keep their hands out of their mouths, properly clean up—and to never, ever kiss a chicken.
The CDC recommends that anyone who handles chickens, eggs, or anything they touch properly wash with soap and water (you know, 20 seconds, front and back of hands, under nails, etc). If you can’t wash up, use some of that hand sanitizer you definitely have lying around. Dirty eggs should be cleaned “with fine sandpaper, a brush, or a cloth,” the CDC writes—but never “wash them because colder water can pull germs into the egg.” Eggs should also be refrigerated, and broken eggs should be immediately discarded.
When it comes to young children, the CDC takes a stricter stance: “Always supervise children around backyard poultry and make sure they wash their hands properly afterward,” the agency writes. “Don’t let children younger than 5 years touch chicks, ducklings, or other backyard poultry. Young children are more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella.”
As a backyard chicken owner myself, I know there are times when you have to handle chickens, and collecting eggs is a daily occurrence, particularly during the summer months. I also know that, despite the CDC advising everyone to “cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm,” many of us are not going to do that because fresh, over-easy eggs are simply worth the risk of becoming violently ill. Still, the least we can do is wash our hands, stop kissing the birds, and keep children well away from them until they’re big enough to know what’s good for them.