Raising backyard poultry is a popular way to participate in urban micro-livestock production. Many are drawn to this practice as a way to provide themselves with sustainable, ethically sourced meat and eggs. However, increasingly people are taking up urban poultry production to increase their own self-sufficiency. In fact, the current COVID-19 pandemic has seen the trend take off in response to the difficulty grocery stores faced in keeping supplies stocked.
Many cities have poultry keeping regulations in their books or have adjusted them due to demand. Most backyard flocks range anywhere from 2 to 10 birds. These birds are easily accessible as prospect owners can purchase chicks for anywhere between $5-$10 at local feedstores or even online to be shipped directly to their homes. Additionally, there are countless books, online resources, and virtual communities that specialize in backyard poultry keeping so even learning about the process is easily done with a little research.
However, while the popularity of raising backyard poultry has increased so has the rate of health risks associated.
What is the human-health risk?
As with most domesticated animal species, poultry can be carriers for various conditions that post a zoonotic risk. Zoonotic risks are in reference to parasitic, bacterial, or viral diseases that humans can become infected with when exposed to a sick animal.
Salmonella is one of the most common zoonotic conditions in relation to poultry keeping. The CDC reports that this year alone has seen at least 544 cases of backyard poultry related infections nation-wide (66% of 1659 cases of reported salmonella infections).
According to the agency, people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and stomach crops that can last 4 to 7 days. While most people recover without treatment, young children, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised may develop severe conditions that require hospitalization. What makes it so easy to pass along is that health birds may be carriers without looking ill.
The CDC recommends that backyard poultry owners practice proper hygiene to avoid possible salmonella infections by:
- Not cuddling or kissing birds
- Washing hands after handling poultry or supplies (especially before handling food)
- Storing eggs in the refrigerator and cooking them thoroughly
What risks do backyard poultry pose to a community?
On the larger community scale, backyard poultry health risks come down to the transaction of diseases in between flocks. Neighbors or friends can transfer parasitic, bacterial, or viral diseases from one flock to another by sharing supplies, not properly quarantining birds, or by not changing their clothes/shoes when and after visiting another property with poultry.
During the Virulent Newcastle Disease outbreak from 2018-2020, most of Southern California was placed under a mandatory quarantine for all poultry and the CDFA sought to control and exterminate the disease. However, it was a long battle as many people were uneducated about the disease and contributed to its spread by moving and transporting birds within and beyond the boundaries of the quarantine zone. A case of the disease was reported even as far as Redding, California as an owner transported his unknowingly sick birds into the area. The image below shows the extent of the CDFA’s quarantine zone and active cases (shown as red dots) from the time of May 2018 – August 2019. The quarantine regulations were not lifted until June 1, 2020.
Poultry diseases can be regulated in a community by everyone practicing proper hygiene and control measures. Vaccines are also available for purchase and birds should be vaccinated for common diseases and those that an endemic to their area. Birds purchased from hatchery sources have been automatically vaccinated. However, the issues come from multi-generational flocks in which the owners were not aware of vaccines.
Raising backyard poultry can be a rewarding practice for anyone who wants to becomes involved in urban livestock production for whatever reason. It is important, however, that future poultry owners do their research and understand the risks associated and how they can keep themselves and their community of poultry keepers safe.