High egg prices may tempt you to start your own backyard flock, but chickens pose some health risks

High egg prices may tempt you to start your own backyard flock, but chickens pose some health risks


As egg prices rise, more people may be buying their own backyard flock of chickens.

But before you build a coop and subscribe to Chicken Whisperer, health experts have a warning: Caring for backyard chickens isn’t as easy as bringing home a cute new kitten, and keeping chickens can come with a handful of serious health risks, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When handling the hens and their eggs, you need to take extra precautions.

“Backyard poultry in particular can have salmonella in their droppings and on their bodies even if they look healthy and clean,” said Dr. Kathy Benedict, veterinary epidemiologist at the CDC.

The bacteria can live on the bird’s beak, feathers, or feet, as well as in its digestive tract, and spread to the bird’s living environment and onto a person’s clothing, hands, or shoes. This can make people around them sick.

Just last year there were several salmonella outbreaks in several states. Backyard herds have been linked to at least 1,200 people contracting salmonella, Benedict said.

At least 225 people have been hospitalized and there have been two backyard poultry-related deaths in 2022 alone.

“It’s been happening for the past few years, with at least a thousand cases reported every year,” Benedict said. “We anticipate there are many more that will not necessarily be reported to public health.”

Chickens can also expose humans to the Campylobacter bacteria.

Neither bacteria usually makes the bird sick, but both can cause diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps in humans.

Benedict said people with compromised immune systems, including those with diseases like cancer, diabetes, kidney or liver problems, as well as young children, need to be extra careful around backyard chickens because they can contract more serious illnesses if infected.

If you decide to get your own chickens, the CDC asks that parents discourage children under the age of 5 from touching the animals. For older children, parents should supervise their interaction. The chicks may be cute, but young children in particular are far more likely to contract salmonella because their immune systems are still developing.

“Don’t kiss, cuddle, eat or drink around your backyard fowl,” Benedict advised.

Backyard birds and their gear should remain in the backyard and outside of the home to confine bacteria to the birds’ habitat.

People may also want to keep “cage shoes” – shoes you use exclusively when interacting with the chickens. Be sure to take them off before you go back inside so you don’t pursue the bacteria inside.

Always wash your hands after touching the chickens or even keep hand sanitizer outside where you can sanitize your hands before going inside.

As for handling the chicken eggs, people should collect them immediately and not leave them sitting in the nest as they may get dirty or break. Beaten eggs should be discarded, as a crack can make it easier for bacteria to enter.

Once the eggs are collected, you should use a fine sandpaper, brush, or cloth to remove dirt. Do not wash the eggs with water as colder water can draw the germs into the eggs.

The CDC recommends people refrigerate their eggs to keep them fresh. The cooler temperatures also slow down the growth of germs.

When you cook the eggs, make sure the yolks and whites are set to reduce your exposure to the bacteria again.

“At CDC, we want to protect people’s health, but we also understand that people have this close relationship with their chickens. We love this animal-human bond,” said Benedict. “There’s only one sure way to do it.”