Animal Health Matters: Baby chicks are cute, but watch out for salmonellosis

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum
Russ Daly

Baby chick season reminds us of a possible illness threat

As conference calls go, my monthly call with fellow state public health veterinarians is an enjoyable one. It’s always interesting to hear the stories of zoonotic diseases in various parts of the country. The manner in which these colleagues investigate and mitigate these outbreaks is quite educational.

On a recent call, CDC veterinarians presented information on an extensive outbreak of salmonellosis in people. This disease, which can be caused by a variety of strains of bacteria in the salmonella family, is not something you want to catch. A miserable bout of diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps can knock you off your feet for several days. Some people – especially young kids and the elderly – end up in the hospital from it, and in rare cases it can be fatal.

This outbreak affected more than 1,100 people across the entire U.S., including 10 in South Dakota and 56 in Minnesota, and put a third of them in the hospital. Two people died from their infections. Quite a serious situation by any measure.

Salmonella germs can come from many different sources, so what caused these cases? Food poisoning? Contaminated water? No. The origin was something most people would not consider a human health threat: baby chicks and backyard poultry such as chickens and ducks.

I’m not sure you can find a more adorable animal than a baby chick. This is the time of year when our farm stores stock up on chicks to sell to backyard poultry enthusiasts now that the weather is getting warmer. The babies are cute enough and small enough to be irresistible to people of all ages: easily picked up and held – with very little risk of attacking.

It would seem strange for such animals to be the source of nasty illnesses due to salmonella. However, salmonella germs are normal residents of these birds’ digestive tracts. The same germs that can put people in the hospital have evolved to coexist very cozily with the birds and ride along in their guts without causing them ill effects.

With their home being the digestive tract, salmonella germs are excreted in the birds’ droppings. So anywhere the birds make these “deposits” can be contaminated. Pen surfaces, feeders, and waterers become sources of salmonella, as well as the bird’s feathers and skin – even if the bird looks clean.

How does salmonella get from the baby chick to the person? The germs enter people through our mouths. While no one wants to believe we’re actually eating these bacteria, that’s what happens. Once the bacteria is on our hands, it can enter our digestive system when we wipe our mouth or transfer it to a sandwich or bag of chips we eat. Little kids who kiss the baby chick can create a direct path for the bacteria to their digestive tract.

Since chicks, ducklings and the older birds they grow into aren’t affected by salmonella themselves, its best to assume any of them are potential illness-causing sources for the bacteria. Use common sense when handling these birds or spending time in their environments – especially when little kids are involved. Almost a quarter of the outbreak cases were in kids 5 years old or younger. Wash your hands with soap and water after handling these birds. Hand sanitizer is a good second choice.

Monitor little kid’s interactions with chicks, making sure they don’t put the birds up to their mouths or kiss them. As much as I hate to say it, the safest bet is probably to just not let the tykes handle the birds at all. Make sure you don’t track the bacteria from the bird environment into the house or other places that could be a contamination source for people.

These salmonella outbreaks appear to be another example of animal-borne human illnesses we never heard of in previous generations. As society in general gets further removed from animal agriculture, contact with such germs becomes less common, leading to lower and lower levels of immunity against these potential threats. That, in turn, makes these illnesses more common. In that sense, it’s more important than ever that we learn about these diseases and incorporate common sense into our interactions with the animals – keeping our encounters with them healthy and wholesome for all.

Russ Daly is the South Dakota Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University.  He can be reached via e-mail at russell.daly@sdstate.edu or at 605-688-5171.