A recent safety alert from the normally staid Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had me glancing at the dateline to be sure it wasn’t an April Fools Day joke: Please don’t kiss your chickens, it warned.
The guidelines, which also discouraged chicken “cuddling,” were issued in response to a multi-state outbreak of salmonella connected to people handling live chickens.
For two days, my email inbox and Facebook feed were full of links to the report, forwarded by friends who know I recently acquired six chickens. Media headline writers had a field day: “Forbidden love,” “CDC cries fowl,” “Chicken owners brood over CDC advice,” “Besotted chicken owners warned not to get too cozy,” “Federal warning prompts cackling.”
Of course, salmonella is no laughing matter.
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In the recent outbreak, no one died, but 181 people in 40 states were infected and 33 required hospitalization. I am no germophobe: I eat food dropped on the floor without rinsing it, and I like to think my excellent health is linked to eating dirt.
For the record, I don’t kiss or cuddle my chickens. It’s not for lack of trying; they’re just not that into me. I do pet them on occasion, however, so I decided to investigate further the risks of human-chicken touching.
I started with the Centers for Disease Control’s informative website and found two useful pages: one about salmonella that tracks the geography and suspected causes of recent outbreaks, and one devoted to keeping backyard poultry.
Then I picked up the phone and dialed Scott Beyer, a poultry expert at Kansas State University. I asked him what he thought of CDC’s no-chicken-kissing guidance.
“I’m flabbergasted, to be honest with you. It never occurred to me that kissing a chicken is something anybody would do,” Beyer said. He went on to say he’s pretty sure it isn’t an issue on farms. The kissing culprits, he said, are more likely to be city folks.
“People with four chickens in their little art chicken house are not cognizant of what is going on because they have grown up in such a sterile world,” he said.
Advances in eliminating contaminants through good freezing and preservatives have given people a false sense of security, Beyer said. “Each generation becomes less observant of washing hands and basic sanitation.”
He went on to say that backyard ducks are an even bigger concern than chickens because people always want to put out a swimming pool for them. “If they poop in it once, it’s a fecal stew,” he said.
The reason we haven’t seen a rise in salmonella from handling poultry on farms, Beyer thinks, has less do with kissing than with sanitation.
“A farmer is going to wash his hands when he walks in the house before touching food,” he said.
Because mice are the biggest carriers of salmonella in a chicken coop, and mice can carry the bacteria to house pets as well, you really should wash your hands after touching your cat or dog, Beyer said.
The CDC website explains that humans become infected with salmonella when the germs on animal bodies or in food enter the mouth.
So don’t be afraid to touch your feathered or furry friends. Just wash your hands well afterward, and try to keep the kissing to within your own species.