How to keep your backyard chickens — and you — healthy and safe

August 15, 2016

More people are keeping chickens in their urban and suburban backyards, and I don’t think it’s just because they enjoy the fresh eggs. It would be cheaper and easier to just buy eggs at the grocery store.

Most people view backyard chickens as pets, not livestock. Chickens have distinct personalities, and they will respond to people who feed them and show them attention and affection.

But how many of these "new" chicken farmers know what they’re doing? There’s a wealth of free information available on the website of Penn Vet — the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia.

The school has sent a news release with 12 important tips because the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports people have been sickened by salmonella after coming in contact with backyard chickens.

A total of 324 people in 35 states got salmonella from Jan. 4 through May 11. More than 90 percent had contact with chickens, according to the CDC, and 27 percent of salmonella victims were young children.

Moreover in a July 19 update, that number of salmonella cases had almost doubled to 611 in 45 states.

Below are several important tips that can keep chicken keepers and their families healthy. They come from Sherrill Davison, a Penn Vet professor and veterinarian who has worked with chickens for more than 30 years.

"Not all poultry have salmonella in their intestines," Davison said. But some chickens who are not ill do have salmonella in their intestinal tracts, which can be passed on to people.

Follow these guidelines:

— After tending your chickens, remove your shoes or boots before entering your home. Wear them only in your chicken yard — and nowhere else.

— Do not bring chickens into your home.

— Wash your hands after handling chickens.

— Do not let chickens near food that will be eaten by people.

— Keep the coop clean. Change bedding every one-to-two weeks and disinfect with diluted household bleach or cleaners formulated for chickens. Chickens should be out of the coop when cleaners are used.

— Isolate birds that seem sick. Your garage is an OK sick bay. Your house is not.

Sick chickens need veterinary care. For names of vets who know how to treat chickens, contact the Penn Vet Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology: 1-610-444-4282.

Calls to the lab are free, and the staff will also answer questions and concerns, "though I cannot diagnose over the phone," said Davison, who is director of the laboratory.

Penn vets are seeing an increase in backyard chickens with Marek’s disease and Mycoplasma. Neither disease is transmitted to people or pets that are not chickens.

Marek’s disease is an untreatable virus that causes tumors, weight loss and paralysis. Chickens won’t get it if they are vaccinated when they are 1 day old.

Mycoplasma is a bacterial-like respiratory disease that can be treated with antibiotics, but it will decrease egg production for the life of the chicken.

With good care, chickens generally live five to six years, Davison said, although one of her patients lived for 10 years. Chickens raised on egg farms are only allowed to live for one to two years — their peak egg production years.

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