Salmonella, a bacterial disease, has long been associated with food-borne illnesses, and chickens are often considered a potential source of contamination. Understanding how chickens contract and spread Salmonella is crucial for maintaining the health of both poultry and humans. Backyard chicken flocks are more popular than ever and there is a risk that your live poultry can be at risk for serious illness and an outbreak of salmonella infections. Let’s delve into the mechanisms behind the transmission of Salmonella in backyard chickens and explore ways to minimize the risk of infection.
What is Salmonella?
Salmonella are bacteria that make people sick. Salmonella live in the intestines of people and animals. People can get Salmonella infection from a variety of sources, including eating contaminated food or drinking contaminated water, touching infected animals, their feces, or their environment.
Most people with Salmonella infection have diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Symptoms usually begin six hours to six days after infection and last four to seven days. However, some people do not develop symptoms for several weeks after infection and others experience symptoms for several weeks.
How Common is Salmonella?
In both 2020 and 2021, the Center for Disease Control reported that salmonella outbreaks associated with backyard flocks led to a staggering 2,857 salmonella cases, 606 hospitalizations, and three fatalities across the United States. Notably, a quarter of those affected during this period were children under the age of 5.
This upsurge in dangerous infection aligns with the growing trend of Americans—whether in rural, suburban, or urban settings—venturing into chicken-raising endeavors since the onset of the pandemic, often to secure a personal supply of fresh eggs. While these feathered companions carry an array of bacteria, salmonella emerges as a particularly concerning and prevalent threat.
Can Backyard Chickens Make You Sick?
Salmonella can persist in the environment, particularly in warm and moist conditions. Chickens that roam freely or are raised in crowded and unclean environments are more susceptible to coming into contact with Salmonella-contaminated surfaces. Contaminated bedding, feed, water, and other equipment can contribute to the spread of the bacteria within the flock. Whether the birds are raised in commercial farms or backyard poultry flocks they can be at risk for strains of salmonella.
How Likely is it to get Salmonella from Chicken?
CDC estimates that Salmonella causes more foodborne illnesses than any other bacteria. Chicken is a major source of these illnesses. In fact, about 1 in every 25 packages of chicken at the grocery store are contaminated with Salmonella. You can get sick from contaminated chicken if it's not cooked thoroughly.
How Salmonella Starts in Chickens
Chickens, like many other animals, can naturally carry Salmonella bacteria. These bacteria are often present in the chicken's gastrointestinal tract, without causing any apparent harm to the bird. This makes it possible for chickens to shed Salmonella in their feces without showing any signs of illness.
Infected Wild Birds
Wild animals, such as sparrows and rodents, can carry Salmonella and introduce it to backyard flocks. Chickens that have access to the outdoors may come into contact with crows and wild birds, leading to potential transmission of the bacteria. Proper biosecurity measures can help reduce the risk of exposure to Salmonella from wild birds.
Stress and Overcrowding
Stress weakens a chicken's immune system, making it more susceptible to infections, including Salmonella. Overcrowded conditions, lack of proper nutrition, and poor management practices contribute to stress among poultry flocks, creating an environment conducive to the spread of Salmonella.
How do Chickens get Salmonella In the Eggs?
Chickens can also acquire Salmonella through vertical transmission, where the bacteria are passed from an infected hen to its offspring through the egg. This emphasizes the importance of ensuring the health of breeding hens and implementing strict hygiene practices in hatcheries.
How Do You Prevent Salmonella In Eggs?
Effective preventive measures, maintaining proper hygiene, and promoting overall flock well-being, can significantly reduce the risk of Salmonella contamination in chickens, eggs and the subsequent transmission to humans.
Who is Most at Risk for Severe Illness?
Everyone is susceptible to salmonella outbreaks but even healthy adults with normal immune systems can contract salmonella germs, however the following groups of people are most at-risk:
- Young children under five years old
- Pregnant women
- Older adults
- People undergoing cancer treatment
- Anyone who is currently sick or has a compromised immune system.
What are the Symptoms of Salmonella Infection?
- Stomach cramps
- Abdominal cramps 12-72 hours after exposure
How do I keep my Chickens from Getting Salmonella?
Backyard flock owners can take simple steps to prevent the spread of salmonella:
- Isolate sick or ill chickens from the flock immediately.
- Avoid food scraps on the ground which encourage rodents. Rat droppings can be contaminated with salmonella and other diseases.
- Help control insects such as flies and roaches by cleaning the coop regularly.
- Regularly change the nesting box straw as well as the roosting bedding.
How do I Reduce the Risk of Contracting Infections from Backyard Birds?
- Do not cuddle or touch baby chicks
- Wash hand thoroughly after contact with backyard eggs or spending time in your backyard chicken coop
- Use hand sanitizer when hand washing is not available
- Cook eggs to 160 degrees
- Cook chicken to 165 degrees
Frequently Asked Questions:
The U.S. The Department of Agriculture has found that there is no discernible difference in Salmonella levels between free-range, organically produced poultry and conventionally produced birds.
It is common for chickens, ducks, and other poultry to carry Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria. These are bacteria that can live naturally in the intestines of poultry and many other animals and can be passed in their droppings or feces. Even organically fed poultry can become infected with Salmonella and Campylobacter.
Salmonella is only detectable under a microscope, so the average person has no way to know if their egg is infected. Just because the egg looks and smells okay doesn't mean that salmonella is absent. Unfortunately, salmonella is odorless, tasteless, and displays no visual cues when present. The good news is that salmonella in raw eggs is rare and can be eliminated by cooking. Cook eggs to 160 degrees Fahrenheit and make sure both the egg yolk and whites are firm.
Vaccination against Salmonella protects chickens from: Infection or re-infection through vermin and the environment. For backyard chicken owners, vaccination is generally necessary only if the birds have had disease problems in the past, may possibly be exposed to other birds (eg, at poultry shows, meat swaps, or wild bird access), or if new birds are introduced to the flock. Talk to your vet to find out if they recommend vaccinating your chickens.