Most of us learn about Salmonella in elementary school, how it can make you sick if you eat raw cookie dough (because of the raw eggs) or if you cut chicken meat and then touch your mouth before washing your hands thoroughly. As adults, we worry about Salmonella lingering dangerously on our cutting boards and countertops. Hence the thriving market for Clorox wipes!
But what is Salmonella and where does it come from? Is it in chickens? On them? Where else does it live?
Salmonella is commonly found in the gut of a chicken, among other helpful and harmful digestive bacteria. It doesn’t hurt them at all. It’s invisible to the naked eye, doesn’t have a smell, and doesn’t have a taste, so it’s easy for people to become infected with it, and it can be dangerous to people if they ingest it and develop salmonellosis.
What is Salmonellosis?
You probably know that you can get Salmonella poisoning during food preparation or by eating infected raw eggs or meat.
But you can also come into contact with Salmonella from being around your backyard flock, the coop, or anything they’ve touched.
It’s mostly children and people with compromised immune systems who develop more severe symptoms of Salmonellosis, including diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and stomach cramps.
While diarrhea may be mildly annoying most of the time, it can also be serious and even life-threatening, causing dehydration rapidly. If you have diarrhea multiple times a day, you may need to be hospitalized.
Salmonellosis can last 4-7 days after infection, with the first symptoms showing up maybe 6 hours from contamination, or 6 days, according to the CDC website. (See their full list of indications that you should go to the hospital if you’re not sure.)
According to the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education, “Salmonella infections cause more hospitalizations and deaths than any other food pathogen.”
Keep in mind that over a million Americans may get Salmonella poisoning every year from consuming contaminated foods.
And if you’re a vegetarian, you’re not entirely safe, either. Surprise! You can get it from contaminated vegetables. Lettuce and spinach are common hosts.
Tragically, even the tomatoes at Chipotle have been known to carry Salmonella in at least one instance (2015 Salmonella outbreak traced to Chipotle Mexican Grill, Source: Food Poison Journal).
Who Should Worry About Salmonella the Most?
Children are at greater risk for developing Salmonellosis because they are still growing and their immune systems aren’t well-developed yet. They are also at higher risk of contamination from backyard poultry because they often stick their fingers in their mouths.
Raising chickens is a great way for children to learn responsibility. That’s half of the reason we keep backyard chickens ourselves! But children need to be protected and they need to know the rules for safe hygiene.
As long as you can help them develop safe handling habits and safe hygiene habits, it’s fine for children to care for your backyard flock.
That said, the CDC recommends that people over 65 and children under 5 not hold or handle backyard poultry at all.
The lower age limit is probably for the same reasons that mask mandates don’t apply to children under 2. Very young children have trouble understanding and following rules.
The upper age limit is on the alert for a different reason. People over 65 also may have compromised immune systems.
How strong your immune system is matters a lot. Many people get bacterial or viral bugs and scarcely notice a difference in their bodily functions.
But those who have compromised immune systems, thanks to diseases like cancer and HIV, could be hit harder by microscopic body intruders.
They need to be especially careful. All the same rules apply: cleanliness and good health practices.
What Other Animals Carry Salmonella?
According to the CDC website, “Chickens, ducks, geese, turkey, and other live poultry can carry Salmonella germs in their guts.”
You also need to watch out for infected bird droppings, beaks, feet, and feathers. The trick is that they don’t have to look dirty to be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. Remember, Salmonella is invisible to the naked eye.
Before you swear off backyard flocks completely, consider that Salmonella bacteria has also been found in cattle, pigs, dogs, and cats. And also “reptiles, amphibians, guinea pigs, hamsters, birds, horses, and other farm animals,” according to the Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education.
Wow. It might start to seem like nowhere is safe. However, as always, prevention is the best medicine. There are ways to protect yourself and your family.
How Can I Protect Myself?
You can protect yourself from Salmonella infection by washing your hands after you touch your backyard chickens, ducks, turkeys, etc. Even if all you touched was the feed bucket or waterer, it’s always a good idea to wash your hands.
Teach your children to wash their hands regularly when they come in from checking on the flock, as well. They should leave their shoes outside and not track the bacteria from the coop back into the house.
Don’t bring your chickens inside, and especially keep them away from the kitchen, unless you plan to thoroughly clean, cook, and eat them.
If you do plan on eating chicken or eggs, no matter where it comes from, make sure to cook your bird products thoroughly! High heat destroys Salmonella, which is really good news for humans.
Nobody likes diarrhea, amirite?
You need to know that an internal temperature of at least 180-185 degrees Fahrenheit will destroy Salmonella bacteria. Use that thermometer to be safe.
Beef products can be cooked at a lower temperature, 145°F, with a three-minute rest period before you eat it. It doesn’t have to be cooked all the way through because the inside of the meat isn’t susceptible to Salmonella contamination the way fowl and pork are (Foundation for Meat and Poultry Research and Education).
How Can I Eradicate Salmonella in My Flock?
Unfortunately, you can’t abolish Salmonella bacteria in the world.
You can try to minimize Salmonella and other bacteria in your chickens’ gut by using chlorinated water for your flocks and organic acids (AllTech). Find poultry supplements with sodium butyrate in vegetable fats (to protect the organic acid salt from acidic intestinal pH) or sodium chlorite with citric acid/sodium acid sulphate. These have been shown in studies to reduce Salmonella colonization in poultry (TandFonline.com).
There are medicated chicken feeds you can give to your baby chicks to prevent illnesses for them, but it doesn’t actually prevent Salmonella. That’s for preventing a disease that actually does kill chickens: coccidiosis.
For a natural supplement you can feed your chickens today, add a little oregano into their feed. It helps fight both E. coli and Salmonella. Try adding just a little oregano at first so they won’t notice the taste, and then you can increase it to a full dose. There’s a fantastic dosage chart at poultrydvm.com.
The bottom line is that the world is full of bacteria, some good and some bad. Practicing good hygiene, building up your own natural immunity, and taking care of your flock will help protect everyone from all those bad microbes.
The best things you can do as a flock-owner are these:
- keep your coop clean
- make sure your birds aren’t eating off the ground next to their poop
- be sure not to crowd your coop (only keep as many chickens as you can give room to move)
- keep dust to a minimum (apparently it can harbor Salmonella)
- regularly clean poultry waterers
- always wash your hands after handling any animals
- leave your animal-feeding shoes by the door and don’t track that mess inside
- follow safe food preparation techniques (cleaning all surfaces, especially cutting boards and cooking raw foods thoroughly)
- don’t kiss your birds
Stay safe out there, bird-lovers and chicken-growers. We need more people like you.