CDC Backyard Chickens & Salmonella ‘Outbreaks’: A Backyard Chicken Keeper Responds

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It’s that time of year again: the yearly outbreak report on human Salmonella cases linked to live poultry.  Get ready to clutch your pearls and hide your kids!

2017 CDC Salmonella Outbreak Linked to Backyard Chickens: Multistate Outbreaks of Human Salmonella Infections Linked to Live Poultry in Backyard Flocks, 2017

When I started writing this the June 1, 2017 were the only numbers presented; as of publication, they’ve updated the numbers on July 13, 2017.

Here are the stats, straight from the CDC page:

10
Outbreaks
790
Cases
48
States
174
Hospitalizations
  • Since the last update on June 1, 2017, 418 more ill people have been reported. The most recent illness began on June 20, 2017.
  • CDC, multiple states, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA-APHIS) are investigating 10 separate multistate outbreaks of Salmonella infections in people who had contact with live poultry in backyard flocks.
    • These outbreaks are caused by several DNA fingerprints of different Salmonella bacteria: Salmonella Braenderup, Salmonella Enteritidis, Salmonella Hadar, Salmonella I 4,[5],12:i-, Salmonella Indiana, Salmonella Infantis, Salmonella Litchfield, Salmonella Mbandaka, Salmonella Muenchen, Salmonella Typhimurium.
  • The outbreak strains of Salmonella have infected a reported 790 people in 48 states and the District of Columbia.
    • Illnesses started on dates ranging from January 4, 2017 to June 20, 2017.
    • Of 580 people with available information, 174 ill people have been hospitalized. No deaths have been reported.
  • Epidemiologic, traceback, and laboratory findings link the 10 outbreaks to contact with live poultry, such as chicks and ducklings, from multiple hatcheries.
    • In interviews, 409 (74%) of 553 ill people reported contact with live poultry in the week before illness started.

Sounds pretty scary, right?  10 outbreaks?! 790 cases?  No wonder news outlets hurried to write cutting-edge stories like:

Washington Post: Backyard chickens blamed for salmonella outbreaks. Do not snuggle with them, CDC says. – June 5 2017

CNN: Getting too friendly with fowl blamed in salmonella outbreaks –  June 2 2017

IndyStar: Don’t kiss the chickens. Here’s why. – June 14 2017

CBS News: Keeping backyard chickens comes with a human health risk, CDC warns  – June 2 2017

Fox News: Backyard chickens are getting people sick again – June 6 2017

Forbes: CDC Warns: Don’t Get Too Close To Your Chickens, Ducks And Geese – June 3 2017

Time: Why You Really Shouldn’t Hug Chickens – June 7 2017

Newsweek: YOUR PET CHICKEN IS MAKING PEOPLE SICK, CDC SAYS – June 6 2017

So what does this all mean?  Just how much damage are these backyard chickens doing?  Why is everyone kissing chickens?  What’s WRONG with these chicken people??

Let’s put it into context.

What Does the CDC Consider an ‘Outbreak’?

From the Salmonella Outbreak page:

When two or more people get the same illness from the same contaminated food or drink, the event is called a foodborne disease outbreak. Similarly, when two or more people get the same illness from contact with the same animal or animal environment, the event is called a zoonotic outbreak.

Simple definition of an ‘outbreak’: any time 2+ people get sick with the same illness anywhere in the US.  I should’ve been going into my last corporate job in a biohazard suit every day, ‘cuz it was basically an ongoing outbreak of whatever sickness people picked up from their kids/spouse/etc.

So, what does the “10 outbreaks’ refer to at the CDC?  10 different strains of Salmonella. Two or more people got infected per strain, making it an outbreak.

The Backyard Chicken Salmonella Outbreak Numbers, Put Into Context

The CDC website is not fun to navigate, nor are their tables of data easy to just pull and analyze.  Some of the tables don’t even have the states in alphabetical order. Still, it was worth it to satisfy my curiosity and pull the data all into one table. I only pulled data up through 2013, because 2012 was the first year they seem to have Salmonella linked to live poultry and they broke down the reporting into each Salmonella strain, which would have taken me a little too long to merge into this table. Embedded table is scroll-able, or use the link below it to navigate to the Google Sheet showing the full table.

Full size data table is on Google docs, here.

When the numbers stand on their own, it’s easy to get nervous. For instance, I live in Michigan, and was shocked to see 55 cases of Salmonella attributed to interaction with live poultry in 2016.  But what percentage of the population is that?  How much of an issue are we facing?

Of course, nobody knows how many people keep backyard chickens (even in cities with backyard chicken municipal code & licensing, there are people who keep them without reporting them). So, for giggles, I did some lazy guesswork, just to see what sort of percentages we might be looking at.

Percentage of Chicken Keeping Population in Michigan Who Became Sick With Salmonella in 2017

Let’s make some assumptions:

1.) Let’s assume that all those reported sick from live poultry are actually poultry keepers, not just people who touched or were otherwise around chickens in the 2 weeks prior to getting sick.

backyard-chicken-sales-in-michigan
4695 members in the Facebook group “Chickens For Sale in Michigan”

2.) Let’s assume that the number of people who keep chickens in Michigan corresponds to the number of members in the Chickens for Sale in Michigan Facebook group, which has 4695 members today.

2017 MI Salmonella Cases # Chicken Keepers in MI
18 4695

18 is what % of 4,695?  .38%

Of course, these are pretty big assumptions, and they’re assuming on the low side.  The CDC likes to point out that many people who become infected with Salmonella will never report it, because they might just get a stomach ache & diarrhea and then get over it. Likewise, I think there are far more than 4695 people in Michigan keeping chickens; as support of my theory, I look at forums like BackyardChickens.com and their Michigan Backyard Chicken Keepers thread, which is currently 3964 pages long with a total of 39,635 messages.

Regardless, maybe this 4695 is a big part of our Michigan population, and we need to be worried about those 4695 people getting sick, crippling our economy and overrunning hospitals.  How big of a threat potential is there?? Let’s look at 2016 numbers, since I can pull Michigan census data for 2016.

2016 MI Cases # Chicken Keepers in MI 2016 Pop. of MI
55 4695 9,928,300

4,695 is what % of 9,928,300? .047%

In 2016, our % of sick is actually much higher than where we are right now in 2017. However, chicken keepers, as a whole, are a TINY percentage of the overall population of Michigan, and then only a TINY percentage of them have contracted Salmonella (again, making big assumptions in all cases).

How Are People Getting Sick With Salmonella From Backyard Chickens?

It’s a good question, since it’s so easy to NOT get sick if you practice basic hygiene and use common sense.  Basically, the rule is:

Don’t put stuff in your mouth that could be unclean.

It’s a pretty easy concept.  Your mom likely drilled it into your head when you were a kid.  “Wash your hands” she’d say. “Don’t stick that in your mouth!” She’d scream. Things like that.

Basically, with chickens, you have to assume they’ve gotten in or around poo.  I assume the same thing with my dog and cat, honestly, and they get the privilege of sleeping on furniture.  If you wash your hands before sticking them in your mouth, and if you don’t go around licking surfaces in your house/yard, you should be fine.

So how are people getting Salmonella from backyard chickens?  I have some theories.  Welcome to my…

Official Guide to Getting Salmonella from Backyard Chickens

  1. Lick everything.  Always.
  2. Clean the coop with your spoon, while you’re eating breakfast.
  3. Let your chicken nest in your salad bowl.HOW-TO-GET-SALMONELLA-FROM-BACKYARD-CHICKENS-CDC
  4. Share toothbrushes with your chickens, even though they don’t have teeth.
  5. Suck eggs fresh from the chicken.CDC-EXPLAINS-HOW-TO-GET-SALMONELLA-FROM-BACKYARD-CHICKENS
  6. Let your chickens soak their feet in your tea after a long day of pecking and scratchin’.
  7. Touch chickens then lick your hands.HOW-TO-GET-SALMONELLA-FROM-TOUCHING-CHICKENS
  8. Drink chicken-stomped wine.
  9. Tongue bathe your chickens.HOW-TO-GET-SALMONELLA-FROM-BACKYARD-CHICKENS-CDC-2017
  10. Keep your chickens toenails short by chewing them.

Important note on ‘Kissing Chickens Causes Salmonella’

All of the above are ludicrous examples, just like insinuating that backyard chicken keepers are all getting sick from getting too ‘intimate’ with their flock, kissing and snuggling them.  There are currently 568,000 results for the search “kissing chickens” on Google- all because some remarks from the CDC on ‘kissing, hugging, and snuggling chickens’ blew up into “OMG THESE CHICKEN WEIRDOS ARE BASICALLY MAKING OUT WITH THEIR BIRDS” because that sort of headline gets clicks.  It’s dumb, and it paints backyard chickens & their keepers as unsavory, odd people- certainly not the sort of people you want living in YOUR town.

As an example of why this is such a disingenuous tagline for all the stories, here’s a snippet from the 2015 Outbreak Summary:

Twenty-eight (41%) of 69 ill people with complete questionnaires reported keeping baby poultry indoors, 39 (57%) of 69 reported holding or snuggling baby poultry, and 4 (6%) of 69 reported kissing baby poultry. These behaviors increase a person’s risk of a Salmonella infection.

Yes, you read that right: 4 people reported kissing baby poultry in 2015.  That was enough to generate high profile articles en masse published in 2015 on Google.  Ridiculous headlines get shared, and journalism suffers because of it. Articles like  “Salmonella Is Raging Because People Keep Kissing Chickens“.  The article leaves out the context of how many people are kissing their chickens, and instead focuses on it like it’s the main issue- and it’s not.  The issue is simple hygienic practices, like washing hands, removing shoes when coming into the house, and not putting your mouth on things that have touched poo (I know, I sound like a broken record). Oh, and teaching your KIDS to do that too.

 

How The CDC Reports Cases of Salmonella Makes It Easy For Naysayers to Fight Against the Legalization of Backyard Chickens

Here’s the crux of why I’m irritated by these yearly reports, and why I think it’s important to change the narrative on salmonella and backyard chickens:  as more people strive to work with their city to create ordinances to allow backyard chickens, the alarmist nature of these articles is easy fodder for those who staunchly want to deny backyard chickens in their city.  The way the data is being presented, not just by the CDC but also news organizations, is irresponsible and fearmongering.

Don’t think it has any impact, or that I’m being overly sensitive?  The city of Eastpointe passed a municipal code in 2017 concerning backyard chickens, allowing them with written permission from each neighbor BUT all children must be supervised while interacting with chickens.  Why?  Because they could get sick, because apparently city council believes that the citizens of Eastpointe aren’t capable of teaching their kids how to handle chickens without somehow getting chicken poo in their mouth.

During the city council sessions in Berkley MI, several people cited concerns over disease and salmonella running wild if backyard chickens were allowed.  Luckily rational thought triumphed, but the city is still doing a limited scope ‘pilot program’, just in case- despite the blatant non-issue backyard chickens have been in Ferndale, Royal Oak, Hazel Park, Madison Heights, & Lathrup Village (all surrounding communities).

Every year, I wait for the numbers from the CDC to come out around early June.  Every year, I get emails and notes to the Ferndale Backyard Chickens Facebook page, asking about the validity of the articles. And every year I say the same thing:  no, I’m not worried about Salmonella.  Don’t put poo in your mouth, wash your hands.

When I approached Ferndale back in 2008, the CDC wasn’t pushing press releases out about Salmonella and backyard chickens.  I guess the argument can be made that it wasn’t as much of an issue, since fewer people had or were interested in urban chicken keeping.  The tides of public opinion have shifted a good deal, but not so much that I’d say your average city dweller thinks backyard chickens are acceptable- and with fearmongering, click-baity articles coming out every year like clockwork, I wonder how public opinion will shift back toward disallowing urban chicken keeping.  That’s why I think it’s so crucial to keep this in perspective:  only a fraction of a percent of people are getting sick every year, and that shouldn’t be used as ammunition to keep people from being allowed to have chickens.

We, as chicken keepers, NEED to make sure the narrative isn’t one-sided. Share this article with family and friends any time they tag you on another ‘kissing chickens’ outbreak article.  Make sure they know that Salmonella isn’t transferred via air, and that basic hygiene keeps people safe.  Most of all, let them know they’re safe- this isn’t something your average chicken keeper has to fear, and it isn’t something non chicken keepers need to be concerned about.

 

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Little Girl has died.

Little Girl died yesterday.

The chickens woke us up with their squawking at around 5am, just as it was starting to get light out.  Ben and I both thought they were just yelling to be ‘let out’ of the run into the yard to begin their day.  Turns out, they were sounding the alarm that Little Girl was dead, laying on the ground underneath the coop.

I’ve been expecting it for years now.  There’s no way a hen can continue to lay yolkless eggs exclusively and NOT have something heinous going on inside her.  Little Girl only produced a handful of yolkless eggs early this year, end of winter/early spring.  She did the same thing the year before.  I knew that eventually that would catch up to her, and result in egg yolk peritonitis or some other malfunction killing her.

She had been slowing down a bit, but not much.  She was lounging a lot more with Bossy, who is entering the early stages of her molt right now.  My assumption was that Little Girl was also entering an early molt, though she’s usually a bit later than Bossy.  She did not stand around hunched, or ruffled, or anything else.  She was eating a little less, but again, that’s something I wrote off to the potential molt.  She was just as pretty as ever, with a bright red comb and wattles, clear eyes, and luxurious perfect feathers.

I’m amazed at how the other hens sounded the alarm over her death.  At one point after picking Little Girl up and examining her, I knelt down with her body and Bossy came up, cocking her head to each side, searching Little Girl’s face.  She very gently pecked an ant off her neck feathers, and checked her face again- it was like she was coming to terms with the reality of Little Girl being gone, like she was still in chickeny disbelief.  I placed Little Girl in the basement of the house, on the washer, to leave there until we were back home and able to dig a hole to bury her in.  Before we left, the chickens started squawking again- they saw Little Girl’s body laying on the washer through the basement window, and were sounding the alarm again.  I had to cover her with a sheet before leaving so the others would stop being spooked.

I’m crushed, but ok.  I honestly didn’t expect her to live this long after first realizing that something was incredibly off about her egg production.  I just miss her.

Little Girl memories:

  • I loved that I could hold her so easily, she never fought me and seemed to prefer being carried
  • She was absolutely vicious toward the other hens whenever they turned in for the night, preferring to sleep by herself on the highest roost
  • She’s the only hen who has gone broody, and I’ll never forget just how badly she fought to get back into the coop to lay on the nest- even flying up onto the top of the coop to see if she could get in that way
  • She was a pro at walking up and down the stairs from the basement to the kitchen, and would wait in the right spot for me to let her out the side door
  • I think she actually enjoyed being ‘cooped up’ with us during the winter while the other hens were outside
  • I won’t miss her psychotically ripping out the feathers of the other chickens
  • She didn’t know how to make the ‘egg song’ like the other hens- hers just came out as an ugly squawk/scream combo
  • Her normal vocalizations were rough and aggressive sounding around the other hens, and changed to sweet sounds around people
  • She seemed to enjoy having her wattles rubbed
  • She survived a hawk attack by wedging behind some bushes and screaming until we ran out and chased off the hawk

What Michigan Backyard Chicken Keepers Need to Know About the Bird Flu

michigan bird flu avian influenza prevention

Before anyone panics, let me start this out by saying this:

You’re not likely to get the bird flu.

That said, I felt the need to put together this post to remind fellow backyard chicken keepers & other fowl keepers (ducks, geese, etc) that it’s ALWAYS crucial to be mindful of the potential for disease to be spread in your flock.  Yesterday, Michigan saw it’s first case of bird flu, found in Canadian geese in Sterling Heights.  Although it’s being shown over and over again that backyard flocks are less prone to contracting bird flu, it’s wise to exercise caution.

From AOL:

“Michigan on Monday said Canadian geese in the state tested positive for a lethal strain of bird flu, bringing the worst outbreak of the disease in U.S. history to a 21st state.

Three young geese collected in Sterling Heights, Michigan, about 20 miles (30 km) north of Detroit, were infected with the highly pathogenic H5N2 flu strain, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The state is now focusing on preventing the spread of the disease to poultry, Director Keith Creagh said.

Nationwide, more than 46 million chickens and turkeys have been killed by the disease or culled to prevent its spread. Most are in Iowa, the top U.S. egg-producing state, and Minnesota, the nation’s top turkey-producing state.

Michigan is the 21st state to confirm a case of bird flu since late 2014 and the sixth to detect it only in wild or free-ranging bids, according to the department. Fifteen states have found the virus in poultry flocks.

The discovery of the disease in Michigan was “not unexpected given avian influenza has been found in a number of our neighboring states and Ontario,” said Jamie Clover Adams, director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

Wild birds are thought to be carriers of the virus, which also can be tracked onto poultry farms by people or trucks that come into contact with contaminated feces. It may also be carried into poultry barns by wind blowing in contaminated dirt or dust.”

What’s the takeaway from all of this:

  1. Keep your birds away from wild geese, ducks, and waterfowl and where they tend to congregate.Bird-Flu-02
  2. Don’t bring in new adult or juvenile birds into your flock without a lengthy quarantine. Read more about quarantine best practices.
  3. Do not show your chickens at live poultry fairs/exhibits.  Michigan has already enacted a statewide quarantine of chickens.
  4. Take care to use sensible biosecurity protocol after visiting farms or anywhere there are potentially infected birds or their droppings- meaning, before you visit your own chickens, remove shoes and clothing that was exposed to potential pathogens and wash your hands.
  5. Consider moving your bird feeder away from where your chickens live & roam.  It’s unlikely that wild songbirds are carriers or bird flu, but they can carry other pathogens and parasites.
  6. Learn the symptoms and facts about Avian Influenza and keep an eye on your birds

Unfortunately, this means that my grand plan of having Ferndale’s first chicken coop tour is out the window, even though the risk is minimal.  When in doubt, I side with caution.

To Our Chicken-less Neighbors:

Our backyard flocks aren’t going to make you sick.  In fact, right now we’re the ones being turned to for eggs, since the price of eggs is skyrocketing after countless factory farm birds have had to be culled due to infection.  It appears that factory farms are contracting bird flu much more readily than backyard flocks, despite our hens wandering in the yard where other birds might be located.  We’re trying to keep our food system healthy, and keep our lovely pet chickens healthy too.  Personally, most people I’ve met who keep a small flock are hyper vigilant about protecting them from the bugaboos and weird stuff that can kill a chicken.  We invest in these birds in a major way for a relatively meager ROI-  after all, in Ferndale we’re getting 3 eggs a day MAX, only in peak laying season when the birds are in their prime.

I’m hopeful that this epidemic is halted before it progresses further.  We’ve barely felt the effects here in Michigan, but with eggs & chicken being such a staple protein, I’m hoping that good biosecurity and prevention will keep us from seeing massive shortages and skyrocketing prices for those who purchase eggs/meat.