Salmonella in Backyard Poultry

By Barry Whitworth, DVM Area Food/Animal Quality and Health Specialist for Eastern Oklahoma

As spring approaches, many of the local farm and garden centers will have their annual “chick” days.  This is the time that many backyard poultry producers get excited to buy some new chicks.  Unfortunately, another problem seems to coincide with arrival of the new chickens: Salmonella outbreaks in humans.  Salmonella outbreaks associated with backyard poultry have been reported in the United States for many years. 

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released the final report on the 2019 Salmonella outbreak associated with backyard poultry.  The first case of Salmonella was reported on January 1st, 2019.  Since the initial case, 1,134 cases of Salmonella infections in people from 49 states and the District of Columbia were found.  Twenty-one percent of the cases were in children under five years of age.  Of those 1,134 cases, 219 were hospitalized and two deaths were reported, one from Ohio and one from Texas.  Oklahoma reported 14 cases of Salmonella infections.  It should be kept in mind that the CDC believes that for every one Salmonella case reported, 29 cases go unreported (Scallan et al., 2011).  In interviews, 67% of the sick people reported contact with chicks or ducklings.  This should be a warning to backyard poultry owners and young people involved in the exhibition of poultry.

Chicken, ducks, and other poultry carry the Salmonella organism.  The bacteria do not normally make the birds sick, but when people accidently ingest the organism, a severe illness may occur.  The bacteria are in the droppings of poultry and can be found on the body of the birds.  Bacteria contaminate cages, coops, feed and water dishes and the area where the birds roam.  People can be infected when handling poultry, entering poultry areas, handling equipment associated with poultry and gathering eggs. 

Salmonella infections in humans are associated with the digestive tract.  Typical clinical signs are diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps.  If the infection goes from the intestinal tract to the blood, the disease will usually become more severe.  Most people with severe infections will require hospitalization.

According to the CDC, children tend to be overrepresented in Salmonella infections associated with backyard poultry.  From 1990 to 2014 Salmonella infections associated with backyard poultry in children less than five years of age accounted for 31% of the cases, and 42% of the cases were less than 10 years old (Basler et al., 2016).  Although there are many sources of salmonella contamination, animal contact Salmonella infections result in more people being hospitalized than food borne infections (Marus et al., 2019).  This would indicate that children need to be carefully monitored when they are around poultry.  Other groups of people who need to be careful around poultry are people over the age of 65 and people with a compromised immune system.

There are two reasons that children may be more at risk than the rest of the population for developing Salmonella infections from exposure to backyard poultry.  One reason for the increase risk is that children’s immune systems are not fully developed.  The other reason stems from the fact that children typically have poor hand hygiene practices (Basler et al., 2016).   Coming in contact with poultry increases the opportunity for children to get their hands dirty and be contaminated with Salmonella. One practice that might expose young children to Salmonella organisms is keeping chickens inside the home.  The CDC reported in the 2015 outbreak of Salmonella associated with backyard poultry that 41% of those questioned indicated that they kept baby poultry indoors (CDC, 2015).  Basler’s analysis reported that sixty-one percent (227/373) of all people who reported getting Salmonella from backyard poultry reported touching baby birds.  Forty-nine percent (196/400) of the people sickened with Salmonella describe snuggling baby birds while 13% (53/400) admitted to kissing baby birds (Basler et al., 2016).  Children should be discouraged from doing any of the above practices.

Parents and leaders overseeing 4-H or FFA poultry projects must ensure that children and young people wash their hands after having contact with poultry.  The following are some suggestions on how to reduce the chance of getting Salmonella:

  • Wash hands with soap and water after having any contact with poultry or any area where poultry are located.  If soap is not available, use a hand sanitizer.
  • Do not allow poultry to enter areas where food and drinks are prepared, served and stored.
  • Do not eat or drink where poultry are located.
  • Cook eggs thoroughly.
  • Clean equipment associated with poultry outdoors.

Having chickens in the backyard or exhibiting poultry at the county fair can be very rewarding experiences.  However, poultry owners should be aware of the potential for a Salmonella infection and always practice good hygiene.  If you would like more information on backyard poultry, contact your local Oklahoma State University Extension Educator or visit the CDC Salmonella website at https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/outbreaks.html.

References

Basler, C., Nguyen, T. A., Anderson, T. C., Hancock, T., & Behravesh, C. B. (2016). Outbreaks of human Salmonella infections associated with live poultry, United States, 1990–2014. Emerging infectious diseases22(10), 1705.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015). Four Multistate Outbreaks of Salmonella Infections Linked to Contact with Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks. Atlanta, GA: Us Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/live-poultry-07-15/index.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). 2019: Outbreaks of Salmonella Infections linked to Backyard Poultry. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/salmonella/backyardpoultry-05-19/

Scallan, E., Hoekstra, R. M., Angulo, F. J., Tauxe, R. V., Widdowson, M. A., Roy, S. L., … & Griffin, P. M. (2011). Foodborne illness acquired in the United States—major pathogens. Emerging infectious diseases17(1), 7.

Read more in the March issue of Oklahoma Farm & Ranch.