By Leslie Mann, Special to the Tribune
August 29, 2012
Owners of backyard chickens are quick to rattle off the pros of keeping live poultry at home: a regular supply of tastier, healthier eggs, hours of entertainment watching the antics of friendly hens and a chance to experience a seemingly lost way of life.
But they risk salmonella poisoning if they don't take precautions, warn health officials, who cite recent outbreaks from handling live poultry. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this summer issued a warning after 37 cases of salmonella in 11 states, including Illinois, were traced to chicks bought from a mail-order hatchery in Idaho.
And a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in late May tracked 316 cases of salmonella poisoning from handling live chickens in 43 states from 2004 through 2011. Most of the infections were traced to an unidentified mail-order hatchery.
"A perfectly healthy chicken can shed salmonella bacteria," said Dr. Casey Barton Behravesh, a veterinary epidemiologist for the CDC. "People know to wash their hands after they handle raw chicken from the grocery store, but forget that live chickens can carry salmonella germs too."
That's especially true with children, who have the highest rate of salmonella infections because of their young immune systems and their tendency to skip hand-washing, said Barton Behravesh. The median age of salmonella victims in the New England Journal study was 4. Also vulnerable are people with suppressed immune symptoms such as the elderly and chemotherapy patients.
Despite the scare, however, chicken owners shouldn't panic, experts say. They can avoid salmonella infection by washing their hands with soap and water after handling the birds, washing the birds' bowls outside and not allowing children to bring chickens into the house.
"Tell the kids the chickens do keep warm outside in the chicken coop in the winter," said Barton Behravesh.
The CDC also does not recommend eggs or chicks in kindergarten classrooms. The bacteria can be on chickens or their eggs, manure, food dishes or cages.
"Some of the kids at that age are still sucking their thumbs, so their hands are always in their mouths." said Barton Behravesh. "Better to wait until the older grades when they can learn to raise the chickens and keep clean."
The hallmark symptoms of the infection are diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after contact. The symptoms usually last four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment.
For veteran chicken owners, careful hand-washing is a given, as it is with other pet owners who regularly change cat litter boxes and scoop up after their dogs during walks, they say. They also emphasize its importance with new owners.
"We always wash our hands after handling them," said Julia Govis, of Chicago, who has kept chickens for 30 years. "We wash the eggs before we put them in the refrigerator. And we don't let the chickens run freely in the vegetable garden during the growing season. So we've never had a (health) problem."
Keeping the chickens' quarters clean is a chore, Govis said, but worth the effort. "Mostly," she said, "It's a matter of using common sense."
None of the people on the Chicago Chicken Enthusiasts forum (chicagochickens.org) website have reported salmonella infection, said forum moderator Martha Boyd. Most of these backyard chicken owners are not only up-close-and-personal with their birds daily, said Boyd, but also "consider them pets."
But the group does recommend hand-washing , Boyd said. In addition to covering hygiene, her forum helps newcomers choose products and poultry, helps owners locate missing chickens and finds homes for birds whose owners can no longer afford to keep them.
It's all about education, said Boyd. On Sept. 22 and 23, the group will host its third annual Windy City Coop Tour in Chicago and some suburbs (see its website for locations), so wannabes can learn how to set up coops.
No state or federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture, keep a tally of the number of backyard chicken fanciers, but the growth of grass-roots groups like Boyd's show an increase in the hobby. Since its 2008 inception, her group has grown to 400 members. Rob Ludlow, who runs the backyardchickens.com forum, said his group has 125,000 members nationwide and gets 100 new members a day.
Meanwhile, more Illinois towns have OK'd chicken raising within the last few years.
Besides Chicago, enthusiasts have prevailed in "chicken wars" with local opponents of backyard coops in Batavia, Brookfield, Elgin, Evanston, Oak Park and West Dundee. Most "chicken laws" limit the number of hens allowed and prohibit roosters.
Some towns, including Evanston, require a minimum of two hens because they are social animals, Boyd said..
Why keep backyard chickens? Govis likes having a ready supply of fresh eggs and her chickens' ability to keep her yard grub-free.
Most members in the Chicago group keep chickens for eggs that beat their commercial counterparts, said Boyd. Eggs from chickens that are allowed to supplement their feed with greens and insects, a luxury many backyard chickens enjoy, have higher vitamins A and E and lower cholesterol, according to a 2007 article in Mother Earth News.
"Other people keep them so they have chicken manure for their gardens or as learning experiences for their kids," Boyd added.
Pro-chicken groups like Boyd's promote backyard chicken raising and try to dispel the myths.
"You hear some say (allowing chicken coops) will give their town the rural image they're trying to get away from," Boyd said. "Others worry that it will create an animal control problem if people get chickens and can't take care of them. That's why those of us with chickens reach out to people who need help."
The biggest complaint they hear from the anti-chicken folks, said Boyd, is noise.
"But those are the roosters, not the hens," she said. "The hens lay an egg a day, whether or not you have a rooster. And I agree about the roosters; they really are noisy."
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