Keeping backyard chickens comes with a human health risk, CDC warns

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Keeping chickens in the backyard has become more popular in recent years, but there's a downside. Many states are reporting salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks, health officials said this week, and they're calling for owners to take steps to reduce infection risk.

So far this year, 47 states have reported cases of human salmonella connected with backyard flocks, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said this week, including 372 people infected. A little over a third of those who became ill were children under age 5. Seventy-one people have been hospitalized.

The symptoms of salmonella infection include nausea and vomiting, blood in the stool, fever, chills and abdominal pain.

Antibiotics can help treat the infection, but people with more severe symptoms may need to go to the hospital for intravenous medication.

Infection doesn't necessarily come from eating raw or under-cooked eggs, warn experts, though both carry the risk of infection.

"A lot what is going on is not related to the eggs," Dr. Sherrill Davison, associate professor of Avian Medicine and Pathology at Penn Vet, told CBS News. "People need to handle poultry safely." 

While some salmonella can get into eggs, most infections happen when someone is handling their chickens and the birds' fecal matter gets on their hands. They then accidentally ingest it when they touch their mouth, she explained.

It may also be tempting for kids and adults to cuddle and kiss their chicks, but keep a distance.

"It may be in the chicken's mouth area because they peck around on the ground. Infection may occur when you're handling live poultry, too, when you are cleaning out your coop area," said Davison, who gets calls everyday from backyard bird owners.

Chicks and ducks may appear clean to the human eye, but they can still carry salmonella. Here are other ways flock owners can avoid getting sick:

  • Always wash hands well with soap and water after handling feathered pets, and keep hands away from the face.
  • Don't let live poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food is served.
  • Don't let kids under 5 handle or touch chicks, ducklings or other live poultry without adult supervision.
  • Toss eggs that look dirty or cracked. Don't rinse them with cold water. 
  • Refrigerate the eggs after you take them from the coop.
  • Cook eggs well.

The CDC has more tips for flock owners on its web site, and is working with public health, veterinary, and agriculture officials in many states and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to investigate outbreaks linked to backyard flocks, a statement issued this week by the health agency said.

People who became ill told the CDC they had purchased baby chicks from a variety of locations including feed supply stores, websites, hatcheries and relatives.

Families who keep backyard chickens and ducks should also be sure to give their feathered pets regular veterinarian check-ups, just like they would a family dog or cat, said Davison. More and more veterinarians are becoming aware of flock problems, so, depending on where you live, you may not need a bird specialist. Your dog's doctor might be able to help with your chickens, too.

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    Mary Brophy Marcus covers health and wellness for CBSNews.com