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

BLOG-cdc-backyard-chickens-salmonella

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.

 

MYTH: Chickens attract rats!

Chickens do not attract rats.

Let me say it again:  chickens DO NOT attract rats. Chickens will kill and eat mice, voles, and rats.

Here’s what really attracts rats: food & safe places to live.  Kinda like me.  I just want a nice meal and warm house to curl up in, and to not fight about how chickens are drawing rats to our town.  Rats are opportunistic feeders, and will eat anything that doesn’t eat them first.  The reason I can safely say that rats aren’t drawn to the chickens themselves is because chickens WOULD eat them first.  Don’t believe me?  Do a search for ‘chicken eats mouse’ or ‘chicken kills rat’, or watch this video (WARNING: mouse gets eaten) of a chicken snatching up a mouse and running off with it to eat it.  Chickens are mini-dinosaurs, and I firmly believe if they would eat people if they were bigger than us.

Photo credit: DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR A rooster carries a mouse across a farmyard near Fairbury. http://blogs.pjstar.com/eye/2010/06/11/cmon-eat-it-its-justa-mouse-what-are-you-a-chicken/
Photo credit: DAVID ZALAZNIK/JOURNAL STAR A rooster carries a mouse across a farmyard near Fairbury.
http://blogs.pjstar.com/eye/2010/06/11/cmon-eat-it-its-justa-mouse-what-are-you-a-chicken/

Uncovered trash = rats.
Pet food outside = rats.
Fruit dropping on the ground from fruit trees = rats.
Untended compost heaps = rats.
Piles of lumber on the ground = rats.
Bird feeders = rats.
Untended veggie gardens = rats.
Dog poo = rats.

Know why you don’t see chickens on that list? Because rats are opportunists, not fighters. They’re not after chickens- a fully grown hen can mess up an average size wild rodent (chicks are another story, and great care should be taken to protect them). What they would be after, however, is the chicken’s food. That’s why our ordinance spells out that the feed must be contained, so as not to attract vermin. With proper management of stored food/uneaten food, this doesn’t become an issue.  We’ve seen a far greater issue with unsecured dumpsters in the downtown Ferndale area attracting & feeding rats than we’ll ever have to contend with in properly maintained residential areas.

If you are a chicken keeper, or want to become one, you need to know that rodents are a POTENTIAL problem.  You address this by making sure nothing can get into your coop either by tunneling or climbing (rats will do both), and that feed is secured nightly.

Rats can fall from a height of 50 feet without getting hurt. Rats can jump three feet in the air from a flat surface and leap more than four feet horizontally. Rats can chew through lead, cinder block, and aluminum sheeting.  They’re amazingly smart & tenacious, and if they can get into your coop to eat the chicken feed, they will.  Again, this isn’t the fault of the chicken- rats would just as soon come into your house and eat your groceries, if they could find a way in.

If anyone in Ferndale has reason to believe they have rats, I urge you to contact me directly if you need help ridding your property of them.  Many people have suggested releasing hawks in the area to combat the rodent population; the problem with that is that hawks hunt during the day, and rats come out at dusk and are active throughout the night.  Your best course of action is snap traps or electric traps- they’re quick and effective, and don’t create secondary issues of poisoning in the food chain like rat poison does.

MYTH: Chickens stink!

they may give you the stink eye, but they don’t actually stink

The fear of odor problems caused by backyard chickens is unwarranted. Chickens themselves do not smell- only their feces that have the potential to stink, which is also true of feces from dogs, cats, or any other animal that leaves waste in the yard. But unlike dogs and cats, who leave waste on the lawns of their neighbors or in public places, chicken waste in an urban setting is confined to the coop & run, due to ordinances disallowing them to free range.

It’s also important to realize that the maximum number of chickens a city allows is just four. Four small hens weigh less than 20 pounds collectively, and generate less waste than one average dog.  (In Ferndale, we currently only allow 3 hens.)

Furthermore, chicken manure is a highly valued fertilizer that can be used in the garden, whereas waste from dogs and cats cannot because of the parasites and human diseases it can harbor. According to Dr. Hermes, OSU Extension Poultry Specialist, “Once added to the compost or tilled into the soil, the odor-causing compounds are no longer able to cause objectionable odors.” This statement is an exact quote taken from his letter in support of chickens in Salem, OR. http://www.salemchickens.com/

The reason people fear an odor problem is because their only experience with chickens (if they have any at all), is a farm or commercial poultry operation. In these situations, chickens are viewed as a commodity and are raised with the intention of profit from meat or egg production. Under those circumstances, hundreds, if not thousands, of chickens are often kept in crowded conditions with poor ventilation or regular cleaning. As a result, ammonia can build up and these facilities can stink. In contrast, people who want to raise hens as pets in the city are not looking to make a profit: they want eggs laid by healthy, happy chickens that they treat like pets. A few small birds housed at least 10’ from adjacent dwellings and in close proximity to the owner’s home, are extremely unlikely to create an odor problem for neighbors.

Composting chicken manure is a wonderful bonus to keeping chickens- the high nitrogen content of their manure breaks down high carbon items quickly and efficiently (sometimes almost too quickly, see blog: http://backyardfeast.wordpress.com/2011/05/09/composting-chicken-manure-watch-the-heat/)  Adding the manure to compost eliminates any smell associated with the manure.

Additionally, there are steps urban chicken keepers can take to reduce the chances of odors even further:  use a deep litter method of bedding, or use sand.  I prefer the sand method in my run, where the chickens spend most of their day- it wicks moisture away, eliminating odor and the attraction of flies, drying out the manure in the same way cat litter does.  I clean the run and coop once per day, throwing the waste into my composter; the only thing you can smell in my chicken run is their pine bedding and the flowers in the surrounding garden.  With proper practices, no small scale chicken coop should EVER smell strongly enough that neighbors would notice.

MYTH: Chickens are noisy.

Only roosters crow loudly, not hens. Hens never crow and are generally quiet animals, with the exception of announcing the arrival of a freshly hatched egg. This sound is short-lived, never occurs at night, lasts only a few minutes and takes place once every 24 to 36 hours. Some hens are more vocal than others, depending on the breed, but there is no comparing the sound of a cackling hen to dogs that can bark all night long, power tools, lawn mowers, motorcycles, car alarms, trains, and the myriad of other loud noises frequently heard in the neighborhood.

chickens are *definitely* quieter than dogs

Please note that the 70dB is the potential level of sound energy, but that it would be a rare sound measured very close to the chicken (2ft). The inverse distance law predicts that at ten times the distance (20ft), the sound pressure would drop a tenth, equivalent to a decibel drop of 20dB. That means that for a chicken making a 70dB sound in it’s outdoor enclosure, their neighbor will experience it as 50dB’s- roughly equivalent to a quiet conversation at home. Noise is even further reduced if the chicken makes a sound within their laying coop rather than the outdoor enclosure.

I invite you to watch and listen to my 3 pullets at 9 weeks old- they’re just getting their “big girl” voices, and you can hear a sample of a “bawk” in the video below.  Bonus: they look hilarious.

Chicks on a sunny day.