A Billings Veterinarian’s Perspective

A local veterinarian’s perspective on the public health issues with backyard poultry:

Salmonella – Probably the biggest health risk poultry pose to people is potential spread of the bacteria Salmonella. Chickens can carry Salmonella in their digestive tract, and it can be passed to their eggs or environment via their feces. Proper precautions to take to prevent salmonellosis (the foodborne illness called by salmonella) include:
1. Wash your hands after handling poultry, eggs, or their coop.
2. Store clean eggs in the refrigerator (45 degrees Fahrenheit or less). For eggs visibly dirty, either dry wash (with sandpaper or abrasive pad until visibly clean) or wet wash and sanitize (with water 20 degrees warmer than the egg temperature and with a dilute bleach rinse).
3. Discard eggs that are broken, cracked, or leaking.
4. Cook eggs completely before consumption. This means until the eggs reach 160 degrees Fahrenheit.

Remember, Salmonella is widely found in nature, in the gastrointestinal tracts of mammals, reptiles, and birds. Following the above guidelines will greatly reduce or eliminate the risk of human Salmonella infection from backyard poultry. (Note – these guidelines will help prevent Salmonella infection from potentially infected store-bought eggs as well. TJW)

Avian Influenza – Chickens CAN be infected with and spread Avian Influenza http://www.cdc.gov/flu/avian/. However many public health officials argue that if chickens are properly maintained, homegrown poultry are not a disease threat. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is no need at the present time to remove a backyard flock of chickens because of avian influenza concerns.

Birds should be housed in coops with adequate roof cover to protect them from fecal matter that may drop from birds flying overhead. Following basic biosecurity principles recommended by the USDA http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity/biosecurity/basicspoultry.htm, such as isolating birds from visitors and other birds, avoid sharing tools and equipment with neighbors, knowing the warning signs of infectious bird diseases, and reporting sick birds, will greatly decrease any risk.
According to the Center for Animal Health and Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, “If a highly pathogenic avian influenza enters the US, backyard poultry raisers will be encouraged to implement additional bio-security measures to protect both their birds and themselves. Any sudden increase in death loss in backyard poultry should be reported promptly to the state veterinarian. Protect yourself by washing your hands thoroughly and changing your shoes and clothes after handling chickens so you don’t bring any disease organisms into your house.”

Backyard chickens are much less of a concern than factory-farmed poultry which poses serious risk of spreading disease from animals to humans, especially with the presence of antimicrobial resistance. When it comes to bird flu, some believe that diverse small-scale poultry farming is the solution, not the problem.

Another good resource on preventing Avian Influenza infection in backyard flocks is: http://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/poulsci/tech_manuals/preventing_avian_influenza_backyard.pdf
West Nile Virus – Chickens be infected with West Nile Virus but do not develop the clinical disease. Their immune system response is adequate to clear the virus from their bodies. Infected poultry cannot directly infect other birds, animals, or humans and cannot act as a reservoir for the virus. Several states use sentinel chicken flocks to check for the presence of West Nile Virus. A great resource about Poultry and West Nile Virus is http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/un192.pdf

Emily Gocke-Smith, DVM
Dr Gocke-Smith is a small animal veterinarian in Billings MT and graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She spent 5 years Active Duty in the US Army where her duties involved veterinary care for millitary working dogs, food safety, and public health. A fair portion of her job remains focused on public health in her capacity as veterinarian, still today.


One response to this post.

  1. Dr Gocke-Smith added in a comment regarding hens versus cats/dogs as pets when sending this article in to be published:
    Unless highly pathogenic AI comes to the US, I don’t think influenza is a much of a risk at all.

    For dogs and cats RABIES is a huge risk if the pet is not vaccinated. Also, people can get roundworms and/or hookworms from their pets which can make kids sick and a very small percentage of children BLIND. There are more things (sarcoptic mange, ringworm, toxoplasma etc) I think one could get from a dog/cat.

    BUT if you follow preventive measures – salmonella prevention in chickens, monthly dewormers for dogs/cats and flea control for dogs/cats, and RABIES vaccination I think the risks are very small for either.


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