Guest post by Claire Culver
My husband and I volunteer with FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) program along with Zombie Squad, a nonprofit with a similar mission (but much funnier name and attitude). Both are dedicated to personal safety and disaster preparation/response. I have even become a trainer in the CERT program. However, I got a nice reminder today that accidents happen despite our best efforts. As I lie here shivering under an ice pack on my neck and shoulder following a mishap involving a table improvised out of sawhorses, landscape timbers, plywood and one reallystupid decision to reach beneath it “just to move that one thing,” I’ve decided this is the perfect opportunity to talk about health and safety. This is one of the things most of us tend to overlook in our enthusiasm to begin a new project such as starting out with a few chickens, or even more ambitiously, deciding on impulse to become full-time poultry farmers (yup, that would be me). But it should be the most important part of the planning process in any new project. Obviously, one article won’t cover everything you might experience, but it can cover the basics that everyone should know, and it will hopefully help you get started in developing your own health and safety plan. No matter what your plan is, just be sure to have one, and that everyone in the family is familiar with it. Remember, everyone must be included in a plan for it to be effective.
I realize the subject matter might not be the most fun, so I thought I’d divide it up a bit. In this first installment, I’ll cover infections and zoonotic diseases (that is, those that are transmitted from animal to human). So, let’s dive in! Feet first, of course, because to go head first into unfamiliar water would be unsafe. I started out with the scare tactics right off, because they are the über scary, avoid-at-all-costs kinds of illnesses and deserve their own discussions. (Plus awesome graphics! Oh c’mon, you can’t expect me to be completely serious.)
Remember that old saying about rusty nails and tetanus? While it’s certainly true in part, it doesn’t cover the whole truth. It also tends to lead to a false sense of security that no rust = no tetanus. Clostridium tetani (C. tetani), the bacteria that causes tetanus, is one of the most common bacteria living in soil. In other words, C. tetani is quite literally everywhere. You can get tetanus from anything that is in contact with soil, and it has nothing to do with personal hygiene or how clean your home is. (C. tetani is naturally resistant to disinfectants.) If you go outdoors and encounter soil, you are encountering C. tetani. It’s also greatly concentrated in manure, which is worth considering if you use it in gardening. Nitrile rubber or latex gloves under your gardening gloves can go a long way in avoiding minor injuries to begin with.
So now that you know how common C. tetani is, you might still be thinking “So what? What’s the big deal about lockjaw? Maybe I’ll lose a few pounds before I get well!” Thanks primarily to vaccinations and secondarily to the more sedentary and urban lifestyle of America, tetanus is now very rarely seen. As a result, few Americans fully understand the implications of a tetanus infection. Tetanus is not just an infection of the jaw, it’s an infection of the entire nervous system. The locked jaw is merely the first symptom most commonly seen. It’s caused when the muscles of the face contract involuntarily and completely. Ever had a charlie horse? Try having one in your face. What follows is contraction of the skeletal muscles so strong that it is common for bones to be snapped. If that’s not enough to flip your noodle, consider this. The traditional treatment in ancient Rome for tetanus was to bury the victim up to their neck in sand in hopes of keeping the victim’s violent contractions from snapping their spine.
Mortality rate in the United States for those who were vaccinated before but are not up to date on boosters is 6%. It skyrockets to 15% for those who have never been vaccinated. This is where we should be grateful for what we have available to us in terms of medical care and vaccinations, because the mortality rate for tetanus worldwide is a staggering 45%. i The bad news is there is only one way to protect yourself from tetanus, and that is by rolling up the sleeve and thinking happy thoughts while the nurse jabs the needle in. Yet the good news is amazingly good. Just take a peek at the chart below that shows the number of cases of tetanus in the U.S. since the vaccine was introduced in the 1940s:
Most of the cases in the U.S. today occur in those who have not been vaccinated, or do not have vaccinations up to date. While on the subject of vaccines, let’s face it, no one likes shots. They cost money, they’re inconvenient to get and they often make the arm sore for a day or two. Some people are afraid of needles, and still others believe vaccinations are dangerous. Put all that together and it’s easy to understand why people often fail to get their boosters on time (or at all). While I have no desire to debate the controversy concerning vaccination safety I will say up front that I am not one of those people who thinks they should be avoided. Even if I was, knowing what I do about tetanus I would still get the vaccine. Besides, if I don’t cry when they give it to me, I get a sucker!
Though rabies is now a very rare occurrence nowadays thanks to rigorous vaccinations of pets, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be aware of a few facts based on personal experience. I was bitten by a feral cat last year. As a wildlife biologist, I am quite aware of rabies and when it is or is not prudent to seek treatment, so at that point I was annoyed but unconcerned. When I found the body of the same cat the next day with no evidence of injury it brought a whole other level of concern, so I decided caution was the best option. Before I knew it I found myself in the strange and disturbing position of having to fight for treatment after my county health officials tried to block that treatment out of sheer ignorance (read the full story). Eventually I had to go over their heads all the way to the state pathologist, who was taken aback by the story of my difficulties in getting treatment and told me I was 100% in the right to demand it.
The long and short of it is, if you get bitten by an animal of unknown health that you can’t locate, it is essential that you get post-exposure prophylactic rabies vaccinations, even if the animal seems fine at the time. While the stereotypical “mad dog” of lore is certainly an indicator of rabies, it is not the only one. An animal can be rabid long before it becomes symptomatic. Some wild animals may even become uncharacteristically tame and friendly when rabid. While we’re on the subject of lore, there’s no need to fear those needles to the gut either. Nowadays, the treatment is just a series of garden variety shots given every few weeks for a brief time. Either way, the “better safe than sorry” approach is the only one to take. Never ever wait until you see symptoms to seek treatment, because rabies is 100% fatal at that point. If you have been bitten by a rabid animal you are literally fighting for your life, so be prepared to argue for and demand treatment.
While I’m sure you vaccinate your own pets yearly, remember that strays, feral animals and wildlife are not so lucky. Because the occurrence of rabies is closely monitored, you cannot get vaccines from your own doctor. You must go to an assigned regional medical center. Should you get bitten, call your county health department and ask them which regional hospital is in control of post-exposure rabies prophylactic vaccines. Beyond that, it is merely a question of walking in to that center’s emergency department and telling them you need the shots. Yes, they are expensive and no, they are not always covered by insurance. So if you are hesitant on those grounds, repeat after me, “Once rabies symptoms start to show, rabies is 100% fatal.” In other words, suck it up and you might just save your own life. Did I mention the suckers? Maybe you’ll get one too if you don’t cry! BONUS!
This zoonotic disease comes from fungal spores Histoplasma capsulatum (H. capsulatum) in the soil. It prefers soil with high nitrogen content, such as the soil covered in the fecal matter of birds. Large populations of the fungus reside under roost sites, as they are inundated by droppings. Any soil that is under the standing roost of wild black birds such as starlings or grackles can be presumed a highly infectious area in regards to H capsulatum.ii This is something to consider when you’re raking leaves or mowing underneath a roost spot. Birds can also carry it on their own bodies. For us chickenthusiasts, we must take note that H capsulatum is in very high concentrations in poultry housing that has dirt floors.iii
Humans contract it by inhaling the microscopic spores and the infection affects the lungs to varying degrees. Some exhibit no symptoms whatsoever, while others cough so badly they may appear to have tuberculosis. Though it is rare that it becomes a more serious form of chronic lung disease, it does happen and can be fatal.iv This is especially true in people with immune systems weakened due to chemotherapy, disease, steroid therapy or any other immuno-suppressant drugs.v Another rare result of a histoplasmosis infection is “presumed ocular histoplasmosis,” vi which can cause impaired vision or blindness.
You may be wondering how on earth anyone would breathe bird poo?! Simply put, if you breathe while you mow underneath that tree where the starlings roost, you breathe in poo dust. If you breathe while cleaning your nest boxes and changing out your coop litter, you breathe in poo dust. Because it is the older poo that provides the best environment for H. capsulatum, those of us who use the deep bedding method need to be especially vigilant when turning or changing out both our compost piles and our coops. You can also lessen the dust that is kicked up while you work by a light spritz of water over the flooring before you start to shift material around. Just a light spray here and there can help, but too much can make your bedding very heavy and harder to move.
Since breathing kinda makes it easier to do your birdie chores, a simple solution is to use a National Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH)-approved respirator. This is especially important if you have a larger number of birds in a housing situation that you would be standing inside, where dust would be everywhere. vii Just be sure you use the right one for the job, because there have been many cases of histoplasmosis infections due to using the wrong class of respirators, or poorly fitting ones. viii If your respirator fits properly, you should be able to kiss a skunk in the butt without smelling anything. In fact, you should probably go perform that test now. While you’re at it, you should video the procedure and load it on YouTube for documentation. Okay, I made that last part up. Just wanted to see if you were paying attention. Though it would be incredibly funny if you tried it. To me, anyway.
If you find masks uncomfortable or claustrophobic, a great way to desensitize yourself to the sensation is to wear it around the house while going about your day, gradually increasing the length of time you wear it until it feels like second nature. I know that suggestion sounds like a joke along the lines of kissing a skunk in the booty, but I’m actually serious here. All jokes aside, wearing the mask and goggles for brief periods and slowly building up a tolerance to wearing them makes the entire experience much easier. Of course, if you have teenagers at home, be sure to practice a witty retort for the wiseacre comments you’ll get when they see you dressed up in mask and goggles while cooking dinner.
The simplest way to avoid most other zoonotic diseases is through hygiene. Never eat, drink, smoke or chew gum while working in the coop, and remember that washing your hands and face after finishing up is the proverbial ounce of prevention that will keep you healthy. Additionally, be sure your physician knows you have chickens, so that if you have a flu-like illness or a wound that won’t heal, he or she may want to explore the possibility of zoonotic infection. Plus, won’t it be cool when you get to use a big word like “zoonotic” in a sentence!
I’m sure most of everyone is familiar with this illness, especially after the Humongoloid Egg Recall and Mass Panic Attack of 2010. I was surprised at the number of people who bought eggs from me at the Farmers Market who told me they were happy to find me there because they were “salmonella free.” As an egg farmer of happy, healthy pastured chickens I can tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth. Oh sure, I could get my eggs nearly salmonella free, but only if I put each hen in a cage by herself with no bedding or access to other birds. Obviously this would be incredibly inhumane and impractical, much like keeping your child padlocked in her room for her entire life would most certainly keep her safe from sexual predators. At some point, a person must weigh the cost of safety and security against a life well-lived.
Salmonella occurs naturally in chickens, and my eggs are no different. Sure, I think my technique of handling small batches of eggs from hens who live in a traditional pasture setting as opposed to a giant factory allows for me to be more conscientious of cleanliness, but it doesn’t magically erase salmonella pathogens.
I won’t waste a lot of space here by telling my fellow chickenthusiasts what they already know about salmonella and egg safety, but if you are one of the unfortunate few who are buying eggs because you’re still in the dreaming stage of life with chickens, you can read a few tips on buying eggs and eggs safety at our farm blog here.
Much as I hate to say it, if you have asthma, a feather allergy or allergies to other animals, your poultry dreams may be cracked before they hatch. Ignoring these allergies in the attempt to “tough it out” can result in Allergic Alveolitis, which can cause irreversible damage to the lungs if you expose yourself repeatedly to the allergen. It’s usually considered more of a risk to people who are genetically predisposed to be susceptible to it, but then again, how do you know whether or not you’re predisposed? Be safe if you have allergies. Check with your allergist before you purchase live birds of any kind. Allergic Alveolitis can strike anyone who is repeatedly exposed to large amounts of feather dander and dust. Protect your lungs, because they’re the only set you’ve got! Keep dust to a minimum and use a respirator as mentioned above. Avoid overcrowding and provide good ventilation in your coop. If you do own poultry and you notice a dry hacking cough without explanation, difficulty breathing and periodic fever, it’s time to call your doctor.
Next up, we’ll talk safety. But first I need to take a break to rest my injured body thanks to not practicing what I preach! Full explanation to follow in my next post, I promise! In the meantime, pass me the heating pad please. And I wouldn’t say no to a gift certificate for a massage. Just sayin’.
iPascual FB, McGinley EL, Zanardi LR, et al. Tetanus surveillance–United States, 1998–2000. MMWR Surveill Summ. Jun 20 2003;52(3):1-8. [Medline].
iiChick EW, Compton SB, Pass III T, Mackey B, Hernandez C, Austin Jr E, et al. . Hitchcock’s birds, or the increased rate of exposure to Histoplasma from blackbird roost sites. Chest 80 (4):434–438.
viiLenhart SW, Morris PD, Akin RE, Olenchock SA, Service WS, Boone WP . Organic dust, endotoxin, and ammonia exposures in the North Carolina poultry processing industry. Appl. Occup. Environ. Hyg. 5 (9):611–618.