Keeping backyard poultry (chickens, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, and turkeys) is becoming more popular. People enjoy raising baby poultry including chicks, ducklings, goslings, and poults. Many people keep chickens to have fresh eggs. Although keeping backyard poultry can be fun and educational, owners should be aware that poultry can sometimes carry harmful germs that make people sick.
These germs can cause a variety of illnesses in people, ranging from minor skin infections to serious illnesses that could cause death. One of the best ways to protect yourself from getting sick is to wash your hands thoroughly right after touching poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam.
Whether you are building your first coop or are a seasoned backyard poultry owner, you should know the risks of keeping poultry and the simple things you can do to stay safe.
Read below to learn about diseases that can be spread by poultry and visit the Healthy People section to learn about staying healthy around backyard poultry.
Avian influenza, or bird flu, is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. Some avian influenza viruses that primarily circulate in animals have infected people on rare occasion. When influenza viruses that normally circulate in animals cause an infection in people, this is called a “novel” virus infection. Not all influenza viruses found in birds are known to cause human infections.
How it spreads: Flu viruses are highly contagious. People can get infected through contact with saliva, nasal secretions, and droppings (poop) from infected animals. People also can get infected through contact with virus-contaminated surfaces, poultry coops, pig pens, and supplies. Less often, people can get infected by touching an infected animal and then touching their own eyes, nose, or mouth.
Who is at risk: It is rare for avian flu to spread to people. Anyone can get the flu, but children younger than 5 years old, pregnant people, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are at high risk for serious flu complications.
People who work closely with large numbers of birds, such as producers, are more likely to get bird flu if their animals are infected.
Signs in poultry: Birds can be infected with flu viruses without showing symptoms. Signs that poultry may be infected range from decreased egg production to extremely high death rates.
Symptoms in people: People infected with avian flu viruses can have symptoms similar to the human seasonal flu, such as fever, fatigue, lack of appetite, and coughing. They may also have red eyes, nausea, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and vomiting. Some people can have serious flu complications, including inflammation of the heart (myocarditis), brain (encephalitis), or muscle (myositis, rhabdomyolysis) tissues, and multi-organ failure (for example, respiratory and kidney failure).
Campylobacter are bacteria that can make people and animals sick with a disease called campylobacteriosis.
How it spreads: Campylobacter most often spread to animals and people through the feces (poop) of infected animals, contaminated food, or the environment. People can get infected if they don’t wash their hands after touching an animal or its poop, food, toys, habitats (including coops, pens, and cages), or equipment used around these animals.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get a Campylobacter infection, but children younger than 5 years old, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get severe illness.
Signs in poultry: Poultry usually don’t show signs of Campylobacter infection. Even if they look healthy and clean, poultry can still spread the bacteria to people.
Symptoms in people: People can have diarrhea (often bloody), fever, and stomach cramps. The diarrhea may be accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Symptoms usually start within 2–5 days after infection and last about 1 week.
E. coli are bacteria found in the environment, foods, and intestines of people and animals. Although most kinds of E. coli are harmless, others can make people sick.
How it spreads: E. coli most often spreads to animals and people through the poop of infected animals, contaminated food, or the environment. People can get infected if they don’t wash their hands after touching an animal or its poop, food, toys, habitats (including coops, pens, and cages), or equipment used around these animals.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get sick from E. coli, but children younger than 5 years old, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get severe illness.
Signs in poultry: Poultry naturally have E. coli in their gut, and don’t usually show signs of illness. Even if they look healthy and clean, poultry can still spread the bacteria to people.
Symptoms in people: Symptoms depend on the kind of E. coli causing the infection. Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection is one of the most commonly diagnosed E. coli infections in the United States. Most people infected with STEC experience severe stomach cramps, diarrhea (often bloody), and vomiting. Symptoms usually start within 3–4 days after swallowing the bacteria and last 5-7 days. Some people may develop a type of kidney failure (hemolytic uremic syndrome, also called HUS) and would need to be hospitalized.
Histoplasmosis is an infection caused by a fungus found in the environment, particularly in soil that contains large amounts of bird and bat droppings.
How it spreads: People can get histoplasmosis by breathing in the microscopic fungus from the environment.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get histoplasmosis, but children younger than 5 years old, adults 55 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get severe illness.
Signs in birds: Birds do not get sick from histoplasmosis.
Symptoms in people: Most people don’t get sick from histoplasmosis. People who do get sick from histoplasmosis can have symptoms that usually appear within 3-17 days of exposure. Symptoms include fever, cough, fatigue, chills, headache, chest pain, and body aches.
Every year people get Salmonella infections after handling poultry, such as chicks and ducklings, and the number of people getting sick is increasing.
Who is at risk: Anyone can get sick from Salmonella, but children younger than 5 years old, adults 65 and older, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to get severe illness.
Signs in poultry: Poultry usually don’t show signs of Salmonella infection. Even if they look healthy and clean, poultry can still spread the bacteria to people.
Symptoms in people: Most people infected with Salmonella have diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps. Symptoms usually start 6 hours to 6 days after swallowing the bacteria. Most people recover without treatment after 4 to 7 days.
How to stay healthy around backyard poultry
Wash your hands
- Wash your hands with soap and running water after touching backyard poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. This includes:
- After collecting eggs
- After handling food or water containers or other equipment used for poultry
- After being in areas near poultry even if you did not touch the birds
- Adults should supervise handwashing for young children.
- Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not readily available. You can also put hand sanitizer near your coop for easy access.
Be safe around poultry
- Don’t kiss backyard poultry or snuggle them and then touch your face or mouth.
- Don’t let backyard poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drinks are prepared, served, or stored.
- Don’t eat or drink in areas where poultry live or roam.
- Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house.
- Stay outdoors when cleaning any equipment or materials used to raise or care for poultry, such as cages or food and water containers.
Handle eggs safely
Eggshells may become contaminated with Salmonella and other germs from poultry droppings (poop) or the area where they are laid. To keep your family healthy, follow the tips below when collecting and handling eggs from a backyard flock:
- Always wash your hands with soap and water right after handling eggs, chickens, or anything in their environment.
- Keep a clean coop. Cleaning the coop, floor, nests, and perches regularly will help to keep eggs clean.
- Collect eggs often. Eggs that sit in the nest can become dirty or break.
- Throw away cracked eggs. Bacteria on the shell can more easily enter the egg though a cracked shell.
- Eggs with dirt and debris can be cleaned carefully with fine sandpaper, a brush, or a cloth.
- Don’t wash warm, fresh eggs because colder water can pull bacteria into the egg.
- Refrigerate eggs after collection to maintain freshness and slow bacterial growth.
- Cook eggs until both the yolk and white are firm. Egg dishes should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) or hotter. Raw and undercooked eggs may contain Salmonella bacteria that can make you sick.
- Know local regulations for selling eggs. If you sell eggs, follow local licensing requirements.
Supervise kids around poultry
- Always supervise children around poultry and while they wash their hands afterward.
- Don’t let children younger than 5 years old handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other poultry. Young children are more likely to get sick from germs like Salmonella.
- Don’t give chicks and ducklings to young children as gifts.
- Live poultry should not be kept in schools, childcare centers, and other facilities with children younger than 5 years old.
Prevent bird bites and scratches
Backyard poultry and waterfowl do not have teeth, but their bills and beaks can still cause a lot of damage if they bite you. Germs can spread from poultry bites, pecks, and scratches, even when the wound does not seem deep or serious.
- Avoid bites and scratches from your backyard poultry or waterfowl.
- If poultry scratch or bite you:
- Wash wounds with soap and warm water immediately.
- Seek medical attention and tell your doctor you were bitten or scratched by a bird, especially if:
- The bird appears sick or is acting unusual.
- The wound or injury is serious (uncontrolled bleeding, unable to move, extreme pain, muscle or bone is showing, or the bite is over a joint).
- The wound or site of injury becomes red, painful, warm, or swollen.
- It has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot.
How to keep backyard poultry healthy
Keeping your poultry healthy helps to keep you and your family healthy. To learn how to stay healthy around backyard poultry, visit the Healthy People section.
Prepare for your backyard poultry
- Check your state and local laws before selecting or buying baby chicks, adult poultry (hens, roosters), or waterfowl. Many cities have rules against owning roosters because their crowing violates noise ordinances. Hens will lay eggs without a rooster.
- Find out if there is a local veterinarian who has experience with poultry to help you keep your poultry healthy.
- Learn what types of poultry are suitable for your family. Though most poultry are quite gentle, some breeds are more aggressive and may be more likely to bite or scratch you.
- Learn how to properly care for your poultry before you buy them. Ask your veterinarian or local cooperative extension agent about the best food, care, and enclosure or environment for the poultry you are selecting.
- Build a coop for your poultry outside your home. Backyard poultry need a sturdy environment to protect them from animals that spread disease such as insects and rodents and provide shelter from the weather and predators. The coop should be easy to clean.
- Set up an area outdoors to clean and disinfect all equipment used to care for the poultry and clean their enclosure. Do not clean any items indoors, where the germs could contaminate your home.
- Poultry can shed germs in their droppings (poop). Wear gloves when cleaning bird cages and poultry houses. Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water after contact with the poultry or their environment.
How to choose and introduce poultry
- Buy backyard poultry from hatcheries that participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Poultry Improvement Plan (USDA-NPIP). This program is intended to reduce Salmonella in baby poultry in the hatchery, which can help prevent the spread of illness from poultry to people.
- Pick poultry that are bright, alert, and active. Poultry should have smooth, sleek, and soft feathers that are free of debris or droppings. Poultry that seem sluggish, aren’t moving around very much, or look dirty may be ill.
- When bringing new poultry to an existing flock:
- Keep new poultry separated for at least 30 days before they are introduced to your other poultry. This will help prevent the new poultry from passing disease to your flock. Remember that poultry can appear healthy and clean, but still spread harmful germs that make people sick.
- Clean your hands, shoes, clothing, and equipment when moving between the two groups of poultry during this period of separation. For example, you can dedicate separate pairs of gloves, coveralls, and boots to each group, and you should wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when you go between the two groups.
- Always take care of your existing flock before caring for your new poultry.
- Contact your veterinarian or local extension agent if you notice any signs of illness in your poultry. Sick poultry can:
- Be less active than normal
- Eat or drink less than normal
- Have ruffled feathers, discharge from the eyes or nose, difficulty breathing, or runny diarrhea
- Produce fewer eggs than normal
- Produce discolored, irregular, or misshapen eggs
- Die unexpectedly of no apparent cause
- Your veterinarian or local extension agent can work with you to determine the cause of the illness and help ensure that it does not spread to the rest of the poultry.
Importing poultry into the United States
- USDA regulates the importation of poultry and poultry hatching eggs. USDA restricts the importation of poultry and poultry hatching eggs from countries with reported cases of avian influenza.
- People interested in importing poultry or poultry hatching eggs should visit the USDA live animal importation website.
How to house backyard poultry
Don’t allow poultry or waterfowl inside your home for any reason, including areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens or outdoor patios.
- Provide your backyard poultry with a safe, sturdy environment outdoors, with housing areas and feeders/waterers that can be easily cleaned and disinfected. Poultry can be kept warm outdoors in the winter in a draft-free shelter or by using a safe heating source.
- Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house.
How to clean poultry cages and coops
- Use a diluted bleach solution or another disinfectant to clean and disinfect surfaces that have come in contact with poultry.
- Clean poultry enclosures or cages with bottled dish soap and a commercial disinfectant made for this purpose. When using disinfectants, follow the label instructions for diluting the disinfectant and for how long to leave it on the surface before wiping or rinsing it off.
- Go outside to clean any equipment or materials used to raise or care for live poultry, such as cages or feed or water containers. Don’t clean these items inside the house. This could bring harmful germs into your home.
- Tips for cleaning poultry cages or enclosures:
- First, remove debris (manure, broken egg material, droppings, dirt) by wiping the equipment with a brush soaked in warm water and soap.
- Once most of the debris is removed and the surface is generally clean, then apply the disinfectant. Dilute the disinfectant properly according to label directions before applying it. Most disinfectants only work on clean surfaces and don’t work if they are applied directly to a dirty surface.
- Leave the disinfectant on the surface for the amount of time listed on the label (usually anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes). Then rinse and allow the surface to dry before reuse.
Monitor your poultry’s health
- Work closely with a veterinarian or local extension agent who has experience with poultry for routine evaluation and care to keep your flock healthy and prevent diseases.
- If you aren’t sure if your veterinarian treats poultry, call ahead to ask. If they do not see poultry, they can refer you to a qualified veterinarian in your area that does.
- Keep coops and enclosures clean to prevent the build-up of animal droppings. These droppings could attract insects, rodents, and wildlife that carry disease.
- When you clean droppings and cages, wear work or utility gloves. Don’t pick up droppings with your bare hands and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards.
- If your poultry become sick or die soon after purchase, inform the feed store or hatchery. Also, contact your veterinarian or local cooperative extension agent to investigate the cause of death. Consider waiting at least 30 days before replacing the poultry. Don’t reuse the enclosure until it has been properly cleaned and disinfected.
- A healthy bird can still spread germs to people and other animals. If you become sick shortly after buying or adopting a bird, tell your health care provider about your new animal and other animals that live in your household.
Biosecurity is the key to keeping your poultry healthy. Biosecurity means the things we can do to keep diseases away from birds, property, and people. Practicing good biosecurity reduces the chance of your poultry or your yard being exposed to diseases like avian influenza or Newcastle disease. These diseases can be spread by people, animals, equipment, or vehicles, either accidentally or on purpose.
The following steps are important in keeping your poultry healthy and having good biosecurity practices:
- Keep your distance — Isolate your birds from visitors and other birds.
- Keep it clean — Prevent germs from spreading by cleaning shoes, tools, and equipment.
- Don’t haul disease home — Also clean vehicles and cages.
- Don’t borrow disease from your neighbor — Avoid sharing tools and equipment with neighbors.
- Know the warning signs of infectious bird diseases — Watch for early signs to prevent the spread of disease.
- Report sick birds — Report unusual signs of disease or unexpected deaths.
Salmonella illness in people
- My family has kept chickens for many years, and they have never made us sick. Why?
Your family may have never gotten sick because of the steps you take to stay healthy around poultry, such as thoroughly washing your hands after contact with chickens, their belongings, and habitats. It is also possible that you and other healthy adults in your family can be infected with Salmonella but not realize it because the illness is very mild.
- If poultry can spread germs to people, why aren’t there more people getting sick?
The true number of people who get sick with Salmonella through contact with poultry is likely much higher than the number of illnesses reported to the CDC. That’s because many people who get a diarrheal illness do not know what made them sick, and many others do not get sick enough to visit their healthcare provider and get a diagnosis.
Salmonella illness in animals
- Can other animals, such as cats and dogs, get a Salmonella infection from backyard poultry?
Yes, cats and dogs can get a Salmonella infection and become sick. They may also carry and spread the germ without showing signs of illness. Other animals, such as reptiles, amphibians, rodents, and poultry, may also carry and transmit Salmonella without showing signs of illness. To reduce your pet’s risk of infection, do not let it play, eat, or drink in areas where poultry roam.
- My chickens have Salmonella. Can I treat them with antibiotics?
CDC does not recommend giving antibiotics to poultry to “treat” Salmonella. Salmonella is found naturally in poultry, and the germ usually does not cause them to become sick. Giving antibiotics when not medically necessary can result in antibiotic resistance. If you have more questions around antibiotic use, speak with your local agriculture extension agent or poultry veterinarian. Even if your poultry has Salmonella, you can stay healthy around them by keeping them outdoors, washing hands and items often, and handling eggs safely. For more information about steps you can take to stay healthy, visit the Healthy People section.
Children and backyard poultry
- Should schools keep poultry?
Poultry should not be kept in schools, childcare centers, and other facilities with children younger than 5 years old. If this is not possible, the area where the chickens roam should be considered contaminated, and the children should not be allowed to play, eat, or drink in these areas. The chicken enclosure should be cleaned frequently. Children 5 years and older should be supervised when interacting with chickens. They should wash their hands (under adult supervision) immediately after handling the poultry. In some states, certain animals, including live poultry, are prohibited in childcare facilities because of the health risk. For more information, refer to the NASPHV Compendium of Measures to Prevent Diseases Associated with Animals in Public Settings.
- I think my child got sick from touching our chicks and chickens. What should I do?
Monitor your child and call your child’s healthcare provider if they have symptoms of serious Salmonella illness. If your child is under 5 years old, it’s best to not let them handle or touch chicks, ducklings, and other poultry. Young children are more likely to get sick from germs as their immune systems are still developing and they are more likely to put unwashed hands into their mouth. For older children, always supervise them around poultry and make sure they wash their hands properly afterward.
Gardening with backyard poultry
- I have a backyard garden that my chickens love to peck around in. Does thoroughly washing the produce reduce the risk of Salmonella, or should I keep the chickens out of the garden?
Thoroughly washing produce is always a good idea and can help reduce (although not eliminate) the risk of Salmonella Keeping chickens out of the garden also helps reduce the risk of Salmonella infection, as does the practice of using chicken manure that has gone through the complete composting process. The University of Idaho offers more information regarding composting of chicken manure.
- Can I put chicken manure on my garden?
It depends. There is risk of contamination of produce with germs if fresh chicken manure is put directly on food gardens. Although you should not put fresh chicken manure on your garden because of the risk of contamination, using fully composted chicken manure in your garden is safe. The University of Idaho offers information on composting chicken manure.
Selecting and caring for backyard poultry
- Backyard Poultry Biosecurity Practices to Keep Your Birds Healthy (Defend the Flock)
United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA/APHIS)
- Farm Animal Emergency Preparedness (Blog)
Importing poultry or poultry hatching eggs
- Animal and Animal Product Import Information
- Procedures for Importing Live Poultry
- Procedures for Importing Poultry Hatching Eggs into the United States
Staying healthy around backyard poultry
- Printable Resources
- Salmonella and Eggs
- Facebook Live: CDC’s Dr. Megin Nichols talks about Salmonella and backyard flocks
- How Infected Backyard Poultry Could Spread Bird Flu to People [PDF – 2 pages]
- Antimicrobial Products Registered for Use Against Influenza A Virus on Hard Surfaces. [PDF – 20 pages]
List of approved Avian influenza disinfectants. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- Baby Chicks and Salmonella: Tyler’s Story
Guidance and recommendations
- Compendium of Measures to Prevent Zoonotic Diseases Associated with Non-Traditional Pets
- Compendium of Measures to Prevent Disease Associated with Animals in Public Settings, 2017
National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians (NASPHV)
- National Poultry Improvement Plan