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The Do’s and Don’ts of Backyard Poultry Farming

Rooster at the NC State Fair.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Greer Arthur, Global Health Program Specialist at NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

As of July 12, 768 people in the U.S. have been infected with Salmonella, a group of bacteria that live in human and animal intestines and can often be found in poultry, raw meat, eggs and unpasteurized milk. The infections span 48 states, including North Carolina.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), backyard poultry farming is a likely source of these outbreaks.

If eaten, Salmonella can cause diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Although many people recover within four to seven days, the current rash of outbreaks has caused 122 hospitalizations and two deaths in Texas and Ohio.

Children under the age of five are at higher risk of Salmonella infections after handling poultry, and can suffer more severe illness. Likewise, adults over the age of 65 are also at greater risk for more severe illnesses when exposed to Salmonella.

So when it comes to keeping backyard poultry, there are some basic do’s and don’ts for keeping you and your animals safe.

Do… wash your hands

Although backyard poultry – which include chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese – might be considered healthier than their commercial counterparts, they still carry bacteria.

“A chicken can be perfectly healthy and still be shedding Salmonella,” said Derek Foster, an NC State College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) associate professor of ruminant health management. “Salmonella is not a problem unique to the large-scale poultry industry – Salmonella is carried by chickens, whether you have three in your backyard or thousands in a barn.”

With this in mind, owners should follow advice from the CDC and always wash their hands with soap after touching backyard poultry or anything in their area where they live and roam. Young children should be supervised when interacting with poultry to ensure they wash their hands and do not become contaminated.

Don’t… carry bacteria into your home

We all carry bacteria wherever we go, including between our home and backyard. To avoid transferring bacteria into your home, use separate shoes to take care of the birds. You should also keep all equipment and materials used to care for your flock, such as feed and water containers, in a separate location so there is no risk of cross-contamination.

Rocio Crespo, CVM professor of poultry health management, runs the mobile poultry service at the NC State Veterinary Hospital. If one of your birds does fall sick, she cautions that you should handle the bird carefully by isolating it from the flock and keeping it separate from your home.

“Owners should not bring sick chickens into their homes to care for the animal,” said Crespo. “The animal should be cared for, but it cannot be brought near food or handled without careful precautions.”

Do… ask about appropriate treatments

In the U.S., strict federal laws regulate drug use in food animals to prevent the transfer of drugs that are carcinogenic or cause life-threatening allergic reactions, such as penicillin, into food products.

“In commercial farms, egg-laying chickens receive limited treatments because of the risk of drugs transferring to the eggs, and then to the humans that eat them,” said Crespo. “Because of this, a lot of effort is put into creating an environment that prevents the animals from getting sick in the first place.”

For backyard poultry, consult your veterinarian for appropriate treatments before eating any eggs or meat to ensure your food is free from drug residues.

Do… be aware of antimicrobial resistance

Taking precautions to protect yourself from Salmonella infections has never been more important.

“The current outbreak is particularly alarming because some Salmonella are exhibiting multidrug resistance,” said Sid Thakur, CVM professor of molecular epidemiology and director of the CVM global health program.

“Salmonella can receive drug resistance genes and pass them on to other bacteria, so as the outbreak spreads there’s a risk that more people will catch an infection that is difficult to treat, now and in future outbreaks,” said Thakur.

To find out more about how to protect yourself from antimicrobial resistant infections, visit the CDC website.

Do… be careful where you keep your flocks

For free-range birds, it can be easy for them to pick up infectious microbes and toxins from their environment. In some areas, toxic heavy metals such as lead, mercury and cadmium are present in the soil, which can be transferred into eggs. When consumed in excessive amounts, these heavy metals pose a major risk to human health.

If you are concerned about infectious diseases or toxic contamination in your flock, ask your veterinarian for advice on managing animal healthcare and exposure risks.

Visit the CDC website for safety advice about backyard poultry farming, and to find out when you should visit your healthcare provider if you are experiencing certain symptoms.

Contact the NC State Poultry Mobile Veterinary Services if you have any concerns about the health of your flock.

Veterinarians should contact FARAD for further recommendations on how to minimize drug residues from meat and eggs produced by birds that have been exposed to drugs and chemicals.

This post was originally published in NC State News.