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Can I Get Salmonella From My Backyard Chickens?


When someone says "salmonella" you most likely immediately think uncooked eggs or poultry, and you would be right (although it can be contracted from eating contaminated garden produce as well).

Salmonella IS most often contracted from un- or under-cooked poultry products, and in fact it is estimated that 1 in 20,000 eggs contain Salmonella. A chicken doesn't have to be sick with salmonella to pass the pathogens to you.

So should you be concerned about salmonella in your backyard flock?  Well, let's take a look at what Salmonella is, how it is contracted and if it can be prevented.



What is Salmonella?  


Skipping all the technical mumbo-jumbo, Salmonella (or Salmonellosis) is a bacterial disease affecting the intestinal tract of humans, chickens and other birds and mammals.

Believe it or not, it's related to the bacteria that causes typhoid fever.


What are the symptoms of Salmonella? 


Symptoms of salmonella in humans include cramps, diarrhea, nausea, chills, fever and/or headaches. The symptoms generally appear within 6-72 hours of eating contaminated food and can last up to a week.

Generally not fatal in healthy adults who often recover without seeing a doctor, salmonella can result in death in the elderly, sick, those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women and children if it is not treated with antibiotics and if it moves through the blood stream and to other organs in the body.

Symptoms in chickens include weak and lethargic birds, loose yellow or green droppings, purplish combs and wattles, a drop in egg production, increased thirst, decreased feed consumption and weight loss. It can be deadly to the chicken if not treated in time.

Here's a good article from the website UnsafeFoods.com:

-photo courtesy of the CDC showing YTD cases as of May 25, 2017-

How is Salmonella spread?  


Fortunately not an airborne disease, the salmonella bacteria is usually spread to chickens through rat or mouse droppings in water, feed, damp soil or bedding/litter. It is also passed down through the egg to chicks by mother hens who are infected.

The salmonella bacteria can then be transmitted to humans who eat improperly cooked meat or eggs from infected birds or by putting their hands in their mouth after touching chickens or eggs that have come in contact with contaminated rodent or chicken feces.

Children under five years old make up a large number of salmonella cases, most likely from hand to mouth transmission of the bacteria.


How is Salmonella prevented?

Good personal hygiene (washing hands is a MUST after handling your chickens!) as well as keeping a clean chicken coop and run are the best ways to prevent salmonella. Backyard biosecurity is critical.  Cooking destroys the bacteria, so be sure to cook eggs properly before eating them, if you are concerned. It's interesting to note that freezing eggs does NOT kill salmonella, however.

Here are some other tips to help prevent the spread of salmonella:


Hygiene

  • Have dedicated "chicken footwear" that is only worn to, in and from the coop
  • Always wash your hands in warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds after handling chicks, hens or eggs
  • Use hand sanitizer after being around your chickens if you can't wash your hands 
  • Supervise small children when they are around chickens
  • Teach children not to put their hands in their mouths, especially when around the chickens
  • Don't kiss your chickens! Hugs are fine, petting is fine. lap sitting is fine. Just no kissing.
  • Don't eat or drink around your flock, don't share food
  • Don't let your chickens in your house; if you have baby chicks or a sick chicken, devote an area such as a mudroom, laundry room or garage as a temporary space for them

Egg/Meat Safety

  • Keep nesting boxes clean
  • Collect eggs frequently throughout the egg
  • Discard cracked or extremely dirty eggs
  • Don't wash eggs when you collect them. Allow the natural 'bloom' to protect the inside of the egg from bacteria entering and wash your eggs just before using them
  • Refrigerate eggs after collecting them to slow bacteria growth
  • Rinse eggs in warm water just prior to cooking them
  • Cook eggs to at least 160 degrees so the whites are firm
  • Cook poultry to at least 165 degrees so no pink remains and juices run clear
  • Keep raw poultry separate from other foods and consider using a cutting board dedicated only to poultry
  • Use disposable paper towels to clean kitchen surfaces instead of sponges or dishcloths

Flock Safety

  • Buy chicks from reputable sources to lessen the chances they have the disease
  • Keep your flock's immune systems strong and your hens as healthy as possible
  • If you feed eggshells back to your chickens, but sure you rinse the shells and let them air dry for several hours at least before crushing them and feeding them back (salmonella can only survive for 1-4 hours out in the open air on a hard surface)

What do I do if I think my flock is infected with Salmonella? 

An avian lab or vet can test your flock for salmonella and then treatment with antibiotics is one course you can take.

But as an alternative (or if you don't have a poultry vet near you, you can give the herb sage a try. Recent studies have shown promising results using the culinary herb sage to combat salmonella.

Fresh chopped sage offered to your flock free-choice, dried sage added to their feed or sage essential oils in the water might help to beat down the bacteria.

Adding sage to your flock's regular diet is a good preventive in any case.  Sage is often used in recipes for roast chicken and other chicken dishes. Coincidence? I think not. I think generations ago, through the years, someone figured out the correlation and the two foods began to be paired.



Preventive measures are important since chickens infected and who survive a salmonella overload will be carriers of the disease, and eggs laid by those hens can contain the bacteria.

Fortunately, the likelihood is that salmonella won't live inside an egg. It would be found in the egg white versus the yolk, which is an alkaline environment, and doesn't contain the proper nutrients for the bacteria to thrive.

However, the longer the egg sits out without being refrigerated or cooked, the greater chance the bacteria will move towards the yolk and eventually penetrate the yolk, who's nutrient-rich environment will allow the bacteria to grow. Salmonella can live for weeks or months surrounded by the egg proteins.


The good news is that your backyard eggs, as long as proper precautions are taken, are unlikely to contain or transmit salmonella to your family.

The threat of salmonella should NOT dissuade you from raising backyard chickens, handling them as often as possible OR cooking with your eggs. 

I enjoy making Egg Nog, Mayonnaise, Pasta Carbonara and Tiramisu with our fresh eggs, all of which contain uncooked or partially cooked eggs. I don't worry because I know (and control) how our flock is housed, fed and raised as well as how our eggs are collected and stored.




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