The urge to cuddle your chicken is something most us who have cared for these amazing birds can relate to. After all, we are physical beings accustomed to expressing ourselves through physical contact. And if our feathered friend enjoys the cuddling, then why not?
Because of Salmonella.
A Salmonella infection, or more accurately, Salmonellosis is a nasty thing. Symptoms of this infection include vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool, fever…get the picture? And that’s if you’re lucky enough to have the infection stay in your stomach. If it gets into your blood, then it’s just flat out ugly.
But you might say, ‘my bird would never do this to ME’. You could even argue that you clean the coop regularly and only give it the highest quality, non-GMO feed. Okay, maybe the occasional table scrap as a treat, but overall, your friendly little clucker lives the highest quality life.
Grumpy roosters notwithstanding, your bird doesn’t really have a choice. You can say it’s in their genes, or more accurately, in their poo.
How Can A Chicken Give Me Salmonella?
There are a variety of ways Salmonella can find its way to you, but when it comes to cuddling chickens, it’s the feces that’s the problem. Touch it, and then at some point touch your mouth and you’ve done all that’s necessary to bring the infection into your body.
The feces doesn’t even have to be visible to be a problem. Minute amounts of fecal matter can be anywhere on the birds’ body; their feet, their legs or even their feathers or beak. So it’s easy to see how cuddling your friend, spreads the ‘undesirable’ material not only all over your hands, but over your clothes and arms as well.
And the risk of Salmonella doesn’t stop when you avoid cuddling. Remember, the bacteria that causes Salmonella is in the poo. Cleaning a dirty coop or, if your birds are free-range, simply walking through the yard can bring you in contact with this unwanted bacteria.
Chickens: Avoiding Salmonella
Avoiding the Salmonella nightmare is most easily achieved if you can embrace and employ, one crucial yet incredibly simple concept. Ready?
Step 1: Don’t get any poo in your mouth!
That might seem incredibly intuitive (sarcasm intended), but you’d be surprised how something you can’t always see, gets everywhere!
Step 2: Give your hands a thorough washing!
On a personal note, my grandfather was the king of soap suds. That man would rub his bar of soap until his hands and lower forearms were completely covered with white foam. I don’t know why that made such and impression on me as a child, but I pause to think of him – standing by the sink with his hands covered with soap – every time I’m looking to ensure that I’m clean. (Got to love the things you learn from your grandparents!)
Step 3: Don’t bring poo in the house!
It doesn’t matter how well you’ve washed your hands, if you bring your dirty shoes into the house then there’s a good chance someone’s stocking feet can track the poo through the house.
For our family, we each have a pair of rubber boots that stay in the garage. I love these things. No matter what your attire, whether it’s business professional or shorts and T-shirt, these wonderful oversized clod-hoppers always seem to look out of place. But fashion appeal aside, they’re easy to slip on and off; convenient for taking that trip to the coop for those delicious homegrown eggs.
Step 4: Wash your hands after handling the eggs.
Yes, I know this is the same as step #2, but I want to really hammer the concept down. As we all know, those delicious eggs will come out the south end of a north facing bird. LOTS of poo in that area! So make sure you wash your hands after gathering eggs.
Who Is Most Vulnerable To Salmonella?
When it comes to bacteria related infections, it’s all about the immune system. Generally speaking, a healthy adult has a good chance of dealing with these unpleasant and sometimes fatal infections – if caught early and dealt with properly. However, the risk to a person’s health grows as the immune systems’ ability to fight the infection decreases.
Particularly at risk are the elderly and infants. This is especially bad for infants as they are more inclined to put things in their mouth (one more reason to keep dirty shoes off of the carpet).
Fun Things I CAN Do With My Chicken
1) You can pet them – if you wash your hands!
One of my favorite girls was an Australorp we named Betty. She wasn’t the best egg layer, but she sure was fun. She greeted everyone that came to the house, from the UPS driver to Jehovah’s Witness. If you walked on two legs, then you were clearly a friend.
And she really enjoyed a gentle stroke between the shoulders. Much like a cat, if she wasn’t satisfied with the petting, she’d run just a little ways in front of you and demand some more.
It’s hard to ignore something like that. So we let our son, and ourselves, have the occasional indulgence. We just made sure to stop and wash our hands before we did anything else.
2) Talk to your birds
Tell them about your day or better yet, ask them about theirs. Chickens make a wide variety of sounds and it seems like your flock will always have one that’s more than happy to fill you on the latest gossip. Just be warned, once you get her started, be prepared to listen for a while.
3) Spend time outside
Chickens are pretty inquisitive creatures. They are also almost always together as a flock. So if you go out to play in the yard, chances are, your free range birds will come to see what you’re doing.
I can’t count the number of times my wife has gone out to check her flower garden only to see a troop of birds, with their hilarious high step run, bolting across the yard to see her.
And they love it when you garden. Whether it’s looking for bugs that you have exposed or just scratching at the newly loosened soil, it’s not unusual for your feathered friends to offer a helping claw.
4) Toss them treats
Every now and then a piece of melon hiding in the back of the fridge will escape my attention and make it past the expiration date. Instead of composting it, I’ll cut it open and toss it out into the yard. Happy is the chicken who lives in my backyard on that day!
In fact, chickens love all kinds of expired fruit. Grapes are a special favorite. They also love potato peels and the occasional heel of bread. Whatever the treat, you will feel like smiling as you watch them enjoy it.
5) Hand feed them – if you wash your hands!
Want a visiting friend to have a new experience? Give them a slice of bread and let them hand feed the greedy gobblers.
I have no idea why it is so gratifying to hand feed an animal. But I’ve seen this simple act bring smiles to all ages and all types of people. Even people who are clearly in a rush, will take a moment and hold out a piece of bread for the girls to peck at.
6) Read to them
I am still waiting for the video of some little boy or girl reading the story of ‘An Ugly Duckling’ to a brooding (nesting) hen.
7) Train them to come
There is a real pleasure to be had when you walk into a seemingly empty backyard, make the ‘I’ve got treats call’ and then see a flock of excited birds come running up to you. The world can go from quiet and still to full of noise and activity in just a few seconds
I recommend training them like this even if you don’t want to engage with your flock. Having the ability to bring them to you instead of having to try and catch one, will most certainly come in handy.
Chickens can make truly great companions, providing you with hours of enjoyment. But please respect them by recognizing their unique characteristics. No matter how much time and energy you invest into your feathered friend, they will always have the default setting of a chicken – and this includes the risk of Salmonella.
And most of all, appreciate them for who they are…your favorite egg-laying, morning-crowing, mouse-chasing, bug-devouring, comical and sometimes mischievous, no-two-are-the-same, Chicken!