It was surprising to see what things sold out early in the pandemic: toilet paper, yeast, exercise equipment…. and chicken coops.

Yes, there was a run on chicken coops.

It seems like a lot of people decided to get backyard chickens in response to all the COVID-19 restrictions.

Any human-to-animal contact has a mixture of risks and benefits (just like any human-to-human contact). Mental, social and emotional aspects of pet (including backyard chicken) contact are very important and can’t be ignored, even though they’re harder to measure than things like disease.

However, disease risk is also an important consideration, so we need to figure out how to reduce risks while maximizing the benefits of pet contact. For chickens, the big risk is Salmonella. The risk of chicken-to-human transmission is very well established, and there are outbreaks every year from activities that bring people and chickens together.

The US CDC has been reporting on a large ongoing multistate outbreak of salmonellosis linked to backyard poultry. The latest report adds 408 people to the outbreak list from the last report on July 29, 2020.

As of September 22, a total of 1346 infections have been identified.  The true number is presumably much higher, since reported infections are likely a minority of the cases that actually occur.

  • Cases have been identified in 49 states, and there are 16 separate multi-state outbreaks.
  • A third of patients for whom details were available ended up hospitalized (that’s quite high).
  • Some Salmonella strains involved were resistant to certain antibiotics, but the strains causing disease were fortunately fairly susceptible overall.
  • Some environmental testing was performed, and the outbreak strains were found in backyards and coops.
  • One death has been reported.
  • 23% of affected people were children less than 5 years of age. Standard recommendations say that this age group should be kept away from high risk pets, including poultry.

This isn’t a classical point source outbreak, where one infected site supplied infected birds to multiple distributors/sellers across a wide geographic area. Rather, multiple sources of infected birds have been identified, which reflects the fact that Salmonella is an ever-present risk with poultry. We wouldn’t expect a point source for this disease, we’d expect disease to be distributed across the broader backyard poultry population (which is what we’re seeing).

Good risk-reduction recommendations are available from groups such as the Public Health Ontario (Reducing health risks associated with backyard chickens) and US CDC (Healthy Families and Flocks).

Some things to think about if you’re considering getting backyard chickens:

  • Are there high-risk individuals in your household, or who visit you frequently?  This includes kids less than 5 years of age, adults over 65 years of age, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems.
  • Do you have close neighbours who might be impacted by the presence of your chickens (and are any of them high risk)?
  • Can you set up your coop such that there’s no runoff to neighbouring properties or kid play areas?
  • Are you ready to put the time, effort and cost into doing it right?
  • Do you think you’ll enjoy them, or are you just looking something different to do?  (If the latter, how about considering something else that might carry less risk, or risks you can better control?)
  • Is it legal to have backyard chickens where you live?

Backyard chickens aren’t inherently bad. There’s risk and there’s reward. We’re a low risk household and I wouldn’t mind having some myself, but there are two main barriers in our case: One is coyotes and foxes, since we are over-run with them (and they decimated my rare breed sheep flock). The other is I’d probably have to sneak them in without telling Heather and then live with the repercussions… probably not a good plan.

We’ll have some more research info about backyard chickens here soon.

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