We have come to depend a lot on the food industry to supply us with tasty, quick meals in our busy lives. The downside of this is the occasional outbreak of food-related illnesses. Unfortunately, we can get a disease from backyard chickens.
Sadly, we have become almost ‘used’ to hearing about salmonella outbreaks, listeria, E.coli, etc.
They have until recently been linked with large industrial-type factories or processing plants.
Last year in the US, there were several smaller outbreaks of salmonella among some backyard chicken keepers.
We don’t know whether the salmonella was from contaminated meat or eggs, but I thought this would be a good time to remind everyone that you can get sick from your chickens if you aren’t careful.
The word zoonotic means that the bug/disease can be passed from one species to another. The ones we will touch on here are the more common diseases associated with chickens: Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, and E.coli.
Each of these four is generally associated with tainted meat, eggs, or other dairy products such as raw milk. We will look at some of the ways contamination can happen and what you can do to prevent it in backyard chickens.
Salmonella Disease From Backyard Chickens: Cause and Treatment
Perhaps the number one cause of illness and death in the young, elderly, and immune-suppressed populations. The CDC estimates that over 1.2 million people were sick from salmonella last year, and 450 died.
We generally learn of the problem when we recall chicken or other meat products and eggs.
The most likely cause of a large illness outbreak is from contaminated meat from the processing plant by improperly cleaned equipment, personnel not following strict hygiene rules, etc., or the hatchery that supplied the birds.
Many folks have taken up keeping chickens because of the inhumane treatment of animals or the all too frequent outbreaks of contaminated food. While your chances of getting salmonella are low, it makes sense to maintain your own supply of eggs and meat.
However, it would help if you realized that chickens could carry salmonella, so you must carefully handle your own flock.
Chickens can be carriers of salmonella and show no signs of illness because the bird is well nourished and able to keep the bacteria from multiplying.
How Does Salmonella Spread
Salmonella can be passed from chicken to chicken by horizontal (bird to bird) or vertical (hen to egg) means.
Salmonella sits in the chicken’s intestine, feeding on all the nutrients it gets from the digestion of food.
Once it is passed as a bird ‘dropping,’ it can remain active for a long time.
It can be picked up by another bird that may be pecking at the droppings and can easily spread through the flock in this manner.
A hen who is a salmonella carrier can pass it on to her unborn chicks. It can cause around five percent mortality in new chicks.
Signs of a sick chicken are pretty universal – they will look depressed, ruffled feathers, have diarrhea, eyes closed, hunched up, and have decreased appetite.
As you can see, these signs fit numerous chicken ailments, so if you suspect salmonella take a fecal sample to your local veterinarian; they will be able to test for worms and salmonella.
It is treatable with antibiotics.
There is actually a vaccine that can be given to chickens, but unfortunately, it’s not available to small flock keepers at this time.
Listeria Disease in Backyard Chickens
Thankfully listeria outbreaks are much less common than salmonella since about twenty percent of humans that get the severe form go on to die from it.
The reason it is included here is that the number of reported cases is on the rise.
Listeria is less a disease of poultry – more of cattle, goats, and sheep. Still, they can become infected by pecking at the soil, decaying vegetation, or water that has been contaminated.
Listeria can be found in animals’ and birds’ guts, where it can reside, causing no problems.
Much like the signs and symptoms of salmonella, the hen will be lethargic and look unwell.
The severe form of listeria attacks the brain causing wry neck, leg ‘paddling,’ partial or full paralysis, and unsteady walking – not to be confused with Mareks.
Hens with severe form usually die.
It can be treated with antibiotics if found early enough in the disease process. Outbreaks of listeria in poultry are very infrequent.
You should be aware that most cases of listeria come from meat or dairy products, but the terrible thing is that it can survive and thrive during refrigeration!
Campylobacter Disease in Backyard Chickens
Campylobacter (jejuni) can inhabit a broad range of livestock, including chickens. It is usually non-pathogenic (does not cause illness) in chickens, so they are rarely treated with antibiotics.
It can be problematic with ‘house birds’ such as parrots and finches.
Chickens can ‘pick up the bug from insects, rodents, cross-contamination from another species (cow, sheep, etc.), or a contaminated environment.
Infections tend to be more prolific in the summer months.
An article in the Guardian stated that campylobacter in poultry accounted for a whopping eighty percent of all campylobacter illnesses in humans!
In the US, campylobacter is responsible for greater than fifty percent of all cases of enteritis investigated.
Contamination can occur during processing in large-scale industrial chicken houses, inadequate food, raw milk, and contaminated hand-to-mouth contact (children usually).
Illness in chickens is unusual but can occur. The usual symptoms will be diarrhea, lethargy, weakness, keeping to itself, and looking unwell.
In humans’ profound diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and fever are all part of the disease. Victims often need rehydration and hospitalization, especially the young and elderly.
E. coli in Backyard Chickens
E. coli is probably the best known of all ‘food poisoning’ germs. We all have E.coli living in our intestines where it is safe, contained, and helping to break down food for us. It is when
E.coli turns up elsewhere that it becomes a problem.
Most animals and many birds also have E.coli living in their gut.
E.coli is known as an ‘opportunistic’ infection, meaning that it can attack when the infected bird/mammal/person’ has been compromised somehow.
In chickens’, probably the most commonly seen manifestation of E.coli is egg yolk peritonitis. When the egg is ‘launched’ into the reproductive system, occasionally, they will deposit it in the birds’ abdomen instead of the infundibulum.
It just so happens that egg yolk is a perfect medium for infection.
Chicks that have been hatched from contaminated eggs can develop omphalitis, also known as ‘mushy chick.’
The bacteria has entered the egg and set up the infection, so when the chick is hatched, it already has an overwhelming infection and usually succumbs to the infection.
Chickens can be infected with a low pathogenic E. coli, which may go undetected for a long time. The usual signs are decreased performance (decreased egg-laying), lethargy, diarrhea, and generally looking ill.
E. coli is shed in the poop, so infection of other birds can easily occur.
The most usual way humans become infected is by improperly prepared or cooked food.
Hand washing is essential after handling your birds to prevent any possible ingestion by accident.
How to Prevent Zoonotic Disease with Backyard Chickens
Now that you know you can catch a disease from your birds – how do you prevent illness in the first place?
Really, there are a few straightforward things you can do, and we have divided the preventative information into two parts:
- The flock needs to be kept relatively clean (yes, I know chickens are messy). You should hose areas where the chickens roam to keep poop from accumulating.
- Frequent removal of damp litter and poop – essential in the warmer months to prevent bacterial growth.
- Twice yearly washing down of the inside of the coop, perches, nest-boxes, etc., and hosing down of high traffic areas. A solution of equal parts vinegar and water does an effective job.
- Clean eggs as necessary after collection and keep them in the fridge. If eggs are dirty, they should always be cleaned with hotter water than the egg, or use special wipes made for egg cleaning. You should toss out filthy eggs.
- Compost your manure properly if you use it in the garden. Flies are attracted to dung heaps, so turn it regularly to help the breakdown of materials.
- If you have used the manure on the garden veggies, don’t eat them until they are washed, bacilli can live for a very long time.
- Good nutrition for your flock is essential. Use vitamin/electrolyte powder in drinkers as needed. Let them outside as frequently as you can to get their vitamins from the sun and grass.
- Effective rodent control – just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean you don’t have them! Rodents can carry several diseases, so be on the lookout for the telltale signs of infestation.
- Don’t forget your health checks for your hens. Parasites such as lice and mites can weaken their immune status leaving them open for infection.
- Try to buy your birds from reputable people, preferably NPIP breeders. NPIP birds are tested for a variety of diseases, including salmonella.
- Good handwashing – always! If you can’t wash your hands directly after handling your hens, use an antibacterial hand rub. I keep one in the barn and use it frequently.
- Don’t eat/drink in or around the coop.
- Try to keep a set of chicken clothes separate from your wardrobe. Use them for cleaning the coop and your livestock chores.
- You should carefully watch children under five. Toddlers have a habit of putting things in their mouths.
- If you butcher, your birds make sure you do it cleanly. The carcass should not be contaminated by intestinal residue.
- Cook meats thoroughly and refrigerate leftovers promptly. Do not eat meat that has been sitting around at room temperature for longer than a couple of hours.
- Before consuming, wash eggs thoroughly and check closely for hairline cracks to ensure bacteria has not entered the egg.
So, what can we take away from this? If you follow all the steps outlined for hygiene and cleanliness, it is doubtful you will get sick from your own flock, and you will continue to enjoy the benefits of your hens.
Unfortunately, due to the overuse or inappropriate use of antibiotics in animals, birds, and humans, we see variations in bugs like E.coli that are resistant to most antibiotics.
The major culprit remains industrialized farming, processing, and sales- many steps in the process can lead to illness, especially if ‘short cuts’ are taken.
If you suspect your flock suffers from any of these infections, a veterinarian can take a swab and send it for analysis. Positive results, you can treat infections with antibiotics.
If you see signs that your flock is sick, it is best to stop consuming the products they are producing…at least temporarily.
It’s best to have your birds checked by a veterinarian to pinpoint the exact illness so that you can treat it amongst the entire flock.
More importantly, if you feel sick or experience any symptoms that indicate you have any of the above-mentioned illnesses, see your doctor immediately.
We hope this has enlightened you and reassured you that your flock would not make you sick as long as you follow sensible precautionary steps.
We want you to enjoy your flock and keep both them and yourselves healthy and happy!
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