It’s that time of the year again — the weather’s getting warmer, baby animals are being born, and the government is out here telling you to stop smooching your chicken.
“This is kind of the cold and flu thing of the chicken world,” poultry expert Emily Shoop told the Herald about the CDC’s annual springtime announcement.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention took a break from its sometimes-meandering coronavirus guidelines to blast out a bulletin that backyard chickens are giving people salmonella poisoning.
“Don’t kiss or snuggle backyard poultry, and don’t eat or drink around them,” the CDC wrote. “This can spread salmonella germs to your mouth and make you sick.”
The kissing-and-snuggling line is actually just one small part of a larger “investigation notice” headlined “Salmonella Outbreaks Linked to Backyard Poultry,” which notes that 163 people have been sickened and 34 hospitalized recently in cases that can be traced back to chickens.
Every year, the CDC puts out this type of guidance, and invariably it causes a bit of a flap. National news outlets pull that kissing line out and snicker at the chicken-peckers, while some poultry owners cry fowl and tell the government to stay out of their coop.
Shoop, of the Penn State Extension in central Pennsylvania — one of the most chicken-heavy parts of the whole country — said it’s about this time every year when farm stands across America are selling baby chicks, and suddenly a bunch of people who don’ t have much experience being up close and personal with chickens end up accidentally getting salmonella poisoning.
“They’re great cuddly little animals,” Shoop said, saying people end up just wanting to snuggle with them. “It’s very tempting — they’re very cute.”
Here’s the problem, she said: Chickens’ digestive systems can contain salmonella, a bacteria that can make people very sick — especially if the people are very young, old, or have autoimmune issues. So chicken poop is hazardous to interact with — and so are unwashed eggs, because they come out of the same orifice — a fact that’s compounded by the fact that the poop is often dusty and therefore can, in small amounts, aerosolize get all over the chicken and everything else nearby.
Therefore, Shoop said, keep the birds away from your face, unless you’re going to wash it every time you put it close to the chicken.
“It’s not that chickens are inherently dirty animals —they’re actually very clean,” she said. It’s just that bacteria makes people sick — so don’t kiss them.
Khrysti Smyth of Yardbirds Backyard Chickens, which helps people in the Boston area get into backyard poultry-owning, told the Herald she’s not a big chicken-kisser herself, but it is a thing people do. She compares it to people who let their dogs lick around inside their mouths, which she doesn’t like, either.
But Smyth, who goes by “The Chickeness,” is a chicken cuddler — and doesn’t plan to stop, though she tells people not to be bird brains about it.
“I definitely cuddle my chickens,” she said, noting that a study of Boston-area chickens found lower salmonella in them, as backyard chickens are often healthier when raised right. “They’re really soft and cuddleable. But it’s definitely a common-sense thing.”
She said backyard chickenry has boomed in the area lately. She said of dealing with pet chickens, “My ultimate guideline is: Don’t lick the eggs, wash your hands and otherwise use common sense.”