Raising backyard chicks this spring? Know the health risks

As more people start raising their own backyard chickens — whether to enjoy the ultimate in local eggs, or just for fun — it’s important to know the health risks associated with poultry so you can take basic steps to protect yourself, your family and your flock.

The chickens live in a house and a run, mounted on wheels or skids, and the entire set up is rotated around the garden. Photo by John Quinney
The chickens live in a house and a run, mounted on wheels or skids, and the entire set up is rotated around the garden. Photo by John Quinney

Any domesticated bird kept for producing eggs or meat can carry harmful bacteria, including Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli, that make people sick. Backyard flocks can also be breeding grounds for viruses, such as avian influenza, also known as bird flu.

“Raising baby poultry like chicks, ducklings and goslings in your backyard can offer many benefits, such as fresh eggs, opportunities to connect with nature and education for children and families,” said Dr. Natalie Kwit, Vermont’s public health veterinarian. “But it’s very important to take steps to help minimize the spread of diseases.” Dr. Kwit said that certain people are more likely to get severe illness from the bacteria poultry can carry, such as children younger than 5 years old, older adults and people with weakened immune systems.

Viruses naturally spread among wild birds and can infect domestic poultry and other animals. Some strains of avian flu can cause severe illness or death of infected domestic poultry flocks. While avian influenza viruses usually do not infect people, there have been rare cases of human infection.

Whether you are building your first coop or are a seasoned poultry owner, take precautions to protect yourself, your family, and your flock, including:

Wash your hands with soap and water after touching live poultry or any objects in the area where they live or roam, including eggs.

Supervise children around poultry, and make sure they wash their hands thoroughly afterwards.

Don’t kiss or snuggle backyard poultry and then touch your face or mouth.

Keep backyard poultry and items used to care for them outside of the house, and especially away from areas where food or drinks are prepared, served, stored, or where dishes are cleaned.

Don’t eat or drink in areas where poultry live or roam.

Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry, and keep those shoes outside of the house.

Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment or materials used to raise or care for poultry, such as cages or food and water containers.

Clean the coop, floor, nests and perches regularly.

Officials with the Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets said the best thing you can do to protect your birds from getting avian influenza is to prevent contact with wild waterfowl. Anyone involved with poultry production — from small backyard coops to large commercial producers — should review their biosecurity plans and activities to ensure the health of their birds.

Learn more about backyard poultry safety.

For more information about avian flu preparedness and poultry biosecurity, visit the Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets.