Hardly a week goes by that I don’t get a question (or a dozen) about backyard poultry. As more cities consider or enact laws allowing urban poultry, the debates about and around this issue increase. It’s also becoming a big business, with ample options for people to buy chicken coops (or high end chicken condos), birds and other accessories. (I won’t even get into chicken diapers).

There are arguments for and against keeping backyard poultry. As the CDC states,Owning backyard chickens and other poultry can be a great experience. However, children and other groups of people have a greater chance of illness from handling live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. Even handling baby birds displayed at stores can cause a Salmonella infection.”

Infectious disease risks often get dismissed, but they are very real, as US data show. Here are the final results from CDC’s investigation of multistate outbreaks of salmonellosis from backyard poultry.

  • Perhaps not surprisingly, as backyard chickens become increasingly popular, 2017 saw the largest number of infections linked to backyard poultry.
  • 1120 infected people were identified. That probably represents only a small fraction of true cases, since most infections are not identified and reported. Even if that’s not the case, it’s still an impressive number.
  • Cases were identified in 48 states and the District of Columbia. California led the way with 61 cases.
  • 249 people were hospitalized. 1 died.
  • Several different Salmonella types were involved, as would be expected.

This doesn’t mean that backyard poultry are necessarily all bad; however, it reminds us that there is some degree of risk that comes with keeping them. That risk is higher in certain populations (e.g. young children, elderly individuals, pregnant women, immunocompromised individuals). If those people have contact with backyard poultry or their environment, they are at greater risk of getting sick.

People considering getting backyard poultry need to consider the risks, and whether anyone in the household or anyone who visits is at increased risk. Basic precautions / measures can help reduce the risk, but some degree of risk will always remain. CDC’s recommendations are along these lines… basic practices that can be easily implemented (but which are often ignored):

  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where the birds live and roam.
  • Adults should supervise handwashing for children.
  • Do not let live poultry inside the house.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry without adult supervision.