Can chickens make people sick? This is a question I get asked often, and for good reason. We keep hearing alarming news about a worldwide epidemic of bird flu (aka avian influenza), a deadly salmonella outbreak, and most recently about the virulent Newcastle disease spreading in California. We are told that backyard chickens are making people sick, and that we should stop snuggling with our chickens and keep them away from our kids.
First, let’s put things in perspective: chickens are not a bigger health threat than any other companion animal. After a 5-year study, the California Animal Health and Food Safety (CAFHS) laboratory in UC Davis found that “backyard chickens do not seem to pose a major risk to public health” (see article here).
Before we look at some of the human illnesses associated with chickens, it’s important to realize that healthy chickens don’t have any diseases to transmit!
There are four categories of diseases that humans can get directly or indirectly from chickens:
Environmental diseases come from the chicken environment rather that the chickens themselves.
Aspergillosis is an infection coming from a fungus growing on decomposing organic matter and is quite common. Having a more sensitive respiratory system, chickens are more affected than people to this disease.
Feathers, dander, droppings, dust, moldy grains and litter can cause allergic reactions and inflammation of parts of the lungs.
Zoonotic illnesses are the ones that can be transmitted from other animals to humans. Most diseases are specific to a single species. The first step when a zoonosis is suspected is to diagnose the chicken.
The bird flu is the disease with the most extensive media coverage, although only very few of the influenza viruses can affect both chickens and humans, and even fewer are a serious health concern to people. Humans get bird flu by having direct contact with infected birds, and the illness doesn’t typically spread from one human to another. Bird flu outbreaks happen in large chicken operations where birds are crowded in unsanitary conditions. There is almost no way to get that disease from our backyard chickens.
Pinkeye is an eye inflammation contracted from handling birds infected with Newcastle. Note that the strength of the virus has no impact of whether or not humans become infected.
Parasitic diseases coming from chickens are quite rare, as chicken’s parasites don’t like humans very much.
Mites and lice can crawl on you when handling an infested chicken, but they won’t stay long.
Similarly internal parasites prefer chickens and won’t bother people. Even eating chicken worms (via contaminated hands or eggs) would likely cause no issue although it is gross!
Ticks that bite chickens can also bite humans, and if it carries a disease then people can get infected. But the disease comes from the tick not the chicken.
Food-borne illnesses like salmonella, campylobacter, and E. coli can affect humans when they eat infected eggs and meat. Thoroughly cooking them will kill these bacteria. Or even better, don’t eat chicken at all! They are our friends not food :)
Although there is a low risk of getting diseases from backyard chickens, they may be a real concern for people with a compromised immune system, elderly, and young kids.
Keeping a clean coop, healthy chickens, and following these basic biosecurity measures will greatly reduce the risk of transmission.
Wash your hands after handling your chickens or doing anything in the chicken yard. And make sure that kids keep their hands out of their mouths until they have washed them.
Wear dedicated shoes in your chicken yard to avoid tracking anything out.
Do not wash any chicken equipment in your kitchen sink. We rinse their bowls in their yard with a hose, and then wash them in our laundry room’s sink with a dedicated sponge.
Cover any exposed skin cuts and wounds before going to see your chickens, and disinfect any cuts or scratches that may occur in the chicken yard.
Aerate the coop during cleaning to minimize the dust, and wear a dust mask if necessary.
And of course, be even more careful when handling a sick chicken.
In short, continue to hug your chickens, but don’t forget to wash your hands!
Source: Chapter 15 “Your Chickens and Your Health” from The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd edition, by Gail Damerow.