New backyard chicken fad has risks, warns veterinarian

An infectious disease veterinarian is warning that raising chickens and other kinds of poultry can be risky.

In step with a national trend, more Prince Edward Islanders are keeping backyard chickens this summer — part of a movement of people wanting to grow their own food. 

“We know that poultry, especially young poultry, are a high-risk species for some things like salmonella,” said Dr. Scott Weese, an infectious disease veterinarian and professor at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Ont. He’s studying backyard chickens in that province, where there has been a similar peak in interest. 

Weese is worried that people adopting backyard chickens may not know the risks they could be exposing themselves to — including a couple of bad intestinal infections. 

Risk of illness

Chickens commonly carry bacteria such as salmonella and campylobacter, which can cause intestinal disease in humans. Those most at risk of contracting disease from chickens are children under five, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.  

‘Are people going to maintain proper winter coops, are they going to abandon them, are they going to surrender them to the Humane Society?’ asks infectious disease veterinarian Dr. Scott Weese. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Humans are exposed to the bacteria through the chickens’ feces — for example, when they handle the animals without thoroughly washing their hands immediately afterward, allow chickens inside the home, or come into contact with water runoff containing feces. 

“I think they can be done safely with some common sense; the problem is, common sense isn’t always that common,” said Weese. 

The risk can be reduced by washing your hands, supervising children near the birds, locating coops in a proper area, and not keeping chickens if you or someone in the immediate vicinity is immune-compromised, the veterinarian said. 

Responsible chicken ownership

Weese said he is concerned not only for the health of people adopting the birds, but also for wellbeing of the chickens. They need enough space, proper food and water, and protection from predators. Owners must know how to identify illness in the birds and how to care for them. 

I would not offer rentals if I didn’t feel like the chickens would be well cared for. — Sally Bernard, owner of Barnyard Organics

“You can’t just chuck them in the backyard and expect them to thrive,” he said. 

People also need to think about the chickens’ future, he said, since people could become bored with the trend. 

“Are people going to maintain proper winter coops, are they going to abandon them, are they going to surrender them to the Humane Society?” he said, comparing it to people buying rabbits around Easter, then becoming disenchanted. 

‘Common-sense food handling’

Sally Bernard owns Barnyard Organics, a P.E.I. business that rents out egg-laying hens. She noted via email that she thoroughly educates her customers before they take possession of their chickens.

Barnyard Organics rents chickens and coops each summer on P.E.I. and owner Sally Bernard says she trains people to properly care for the birds. (Shane Fowler/CBC)

“I’m always careful to ensure that folks know that they need to wash their hands and use common-sense food handling,” Bernard said, adding that she has never heard of an issue with any of the business’s hens or eggs. 

“As for the humane care of the hens, when we drop them off we can see where they’re going to live [and] who will be caring for them, and give a thorough ‘training,’ both verbally and written, to ensure they understand the needs of their chickens,” she said.

She also gives customers a book that includes in-depth care details for all seasons.

Bernard said that while customers vary in how much personal investment they have in their hens, she has never picked up a rental that caused concern.

“In fact most of the time, the renters send me home with a list of the hens’ favourite snacks, toys, time of day they lay their egg, etc.,” she said. 

“I would not offer rentals if I didn’t feel like the chickens would be well cared for.”

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