If you have backyard chickens – or are considering a flock – then you’ve probably heard or read of the negative aspects of having a few birds in your backyard. – They’re nosiy, they carry germs, they stink, they’re hard to take care of…
To a few folks – all of those concerns or complaints – could be true to some degree, but in my opinion a small urban flock of hens takes about as much effort – or less – than a dog. If you don’t have a rooster, then you’ll hear an occasional loud bawk to announce when an egg has been laid, but that’s a lot quieter than an annoying dog that yelps at anything. If you spend a few minutes a week keeping the coop and run clean, then smell won’t be a factor.
Germs? Yes they can carry germs… I found this out personally this year when I became infected with the bacteria Campylobacter. I feel strongly that I should share my experience in hopes that others out there will heed my advice and avoid the awful illness I succumbed to. I’m not doing this to scare anyone from having chickens, I just want to stress the point that – as with any pet – keeping things clean and practicing simple hand hygiene will keep you and your flock in good health.
I’ve been a critical care nurse in a large hospital for almost 30 years. I’ve taken care of the sickest patients, dealt with deadly germs, handled countless infected bodily fluids, and never have contracted an infection from an ill patient. Why – because at work I’m clean. I couldn’t begin to imagine the amount of examine gloves we go through a day in the unit. Washing hands with soap and water or using hand sanitizer before and after patient care isn’t just recommended – it’s required. An infection can easily be spread between immunocompromised patients by a staff member going from room to room without doing the simple task of washing their hands. We actually have a hired employee whose only job is to monitor hand washing!
However, when I leave my job and return to my country home, I realized the hard way – that I don’t follow the same rules of cleanliness… I do keep the coop bedded down with fresh straw and eggs are gathered daily from tidy nesting boxes – but I don’t routinely wash my hands after touching my hens or their eggs. My flock free ranges and I don’t remove my shoes every time I enter my home. I didn’t think too much of my daily routine, but there is a pretty good chance that a healthy appearing backyard chicken could be harboring a potentially harmful bacteria.
Here is the breakdown of my illness:
Day 1 – General body aches, some nausea.
Day 2 – Body aches, terrible headache, fever 103.4°F, some diarrhea.
At this point my husband dragged me to urgent care at my protest. I think the fever had overcome me and I was telling God that I had lived a good life, my daughters were grown and I was ready to die. They ran a lot of tests and cultures and sent me home with a diagnoses of a probable bacterial infection, but I would have wait until culture results were finalized.
Day 3 – Continued body aches and fever 102°F.
Day 4 – My cultures were confirmed as Campylobacter. I began having excruciating abdominal cramping and bloody diarrhea every 15 minutes for 18 hours!! I asked my doctor if I could please take something to stop this hell. The answer: no – the bacteria has to get out of your system. If you try to stop the process you could end up with toxic megacolon. I think at this point the only thing that kept me out of the ER was the fact that I didn’t experience vomiting. I was able to keep myself hydrated until this nightmare finally ended.
Day 5-7 – Weakness and feeling like my insides had been ripped out…
It took an entire month for my GI tract to get back to normal and hopefully I’ve developed some sort of immunity to this bacteria, but the whole thing might have been avoided if I practiced what I knew to be safe practices around backyard chickens. – Keep things clean, wash your hands, and don’t bring items that might be contaminated into your home.
Definition – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Campylobacteriosis is an infectious disease caused by bacteria of the genus Campylobacter. Most people who become ill with campylobacteriosis get diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, and fever within two to five days after exposure to the organism. The diarrhea may be bloody and can be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
Transmission – Minnesota Department of Health
Infections are often associated with international travel, undercooked poultry, unpasteurized milk, untreated water, and contact with farm animals. Eating undercooked chicken or other food that has been contaminated with juices dripping from raw chicken is the most frequent source of this infection.
It is common for chickens, ducks, and other poultry to carry Campylobacter. The bacteria 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 Campylobacter. This bacteria was found on 47% of raw chicken samples bought in grocery stores and tested through the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). While these organisms rarely make the birds sick, they can cause serious illness when passed to people.
The germs (from fecal droppings) can spread to cages, coops, bedding, plants, and soil in the area where the birds live, and to the hands, shoes, and clothing of those who care for them. People become infected with Campylobacter when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with the birds or their environment in or around their mouth. Young children are especially at risk for illness because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths and because their immune systems are still developing.
Outcome – CDC
Most people who get campylobacteriosis recover completely within two to five days, although sometimes recovery can take up to 10 days. Rarely, Campylobacter infection results in long-term consequences. Some people develop arthritis.
In the 30 years I have worked in an intensive care unit, I have never cared for a patient with an active campylobacter infection. I have, however, seen cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome. This is an autoimmune disease that affects the nerves of the body beginning several weeks after the diarrheal illness. This occurs when a person’s immune system is “triggered” to attack the body’s own nerves resulting in paralysis. The paralysis usually lasts several weeks and requires intensive medical care. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 reported Campylobacter illnesses leads to Guillain-Barré syndrome.
Usually the illness runs its course without treatment. When I presented to the urgent care with a extremely high fever and lab work suggesting a bacterial infection, I was started on an antibiotic, Levaquin. This antibiotic might have lessen the length of my illness, but resistance to fluoroquinolones (Levaquin, Cipro) is common.
Prevention – CDC
- Cook all poultry products thoroughly. Make sure that the meat is cooked throughout (no longer pink) and any juices run clear. All poultry should be cooked to reach a minimum internal temperature of 165°F.
- If you are served undercooked poultry in a restaurant, send it back for further cooking.
- Wash hands with soap before preparing food.
- Wash hands with soap after handling raw foods of animal origin and before touching anything else.
- Prevent cross-contamination in the kitchen by using separate cutting boards for foods of animal origin and other foods and by thoroughly cleaning all cutting boards, countertops, and utensils with soap and hot water after preparing raw food of animal origin.
- Do not drink unpasteurized milk or untreated surface water.
- Make sure that persons with diarrhea, especially children, wash their hands carefully and frequently with soap to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
- Wash hands with soap after contact with pet (including chicken) feces.
Although I could have contracted the illness from a restaurant, both the infectious disease doctor that I work with and my local health department, thought the odds were pretty high that I was exposed to the bacteria from my free ranging flock.
Make a larger enclosed run for my flock. I love watching my flock free range, but I am tired of the mess of chicken poop everywhere!
Have shoes / boots dedicated to caring for the flock. Get in the habit of taking off my shoes when entering the house.
Gather eggs daily from clean nesting boxes. If the eggs are clean, then I do not wash them, but cook them thoroughly. I will wash my hands after gathering or handling eggs. For more information on washing or storing eggs, visit this site: Safe Handling of Eggs from Small and Backyard Flocks – Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky
My Advice –
To view what else is happening at our Southwest Missouri property visit: the garden-roof coop
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