Q: Is Salmonella a concern with backyard chickens?
A: Not usually, but let us explain why. Humans do not catch salmonella from chicks or chickens the way you would catch a cold from your neighbor. Salmonella is food poisoning; you get it from eating infected meat or eggs. Even then, in order to get a case of salmonella, the meat and eggs you have eaten must be improperly prepared, that is, not completely cooked through. Or, you can also get salmonella by getting your hands or something else contaminated with feces and then putting that thing in your mouth. People more at risk for contracting Salmonella are very young, very old, pregnant or have immune systems that are already compromised in some way. The best way to keep your children and family safe from infection is by keeping your own hens whose conditions you can monitor, and by having your family members wash their hands after dealing with chickens. You want to have them wash hands after dealing with any pets, for that matter. Alcohol is an effective sanitizer for salmonella bacteria.
We have a great post on the topic of salmonella and backyard chickens on our blog.
You can also watch this YouTube video to see additional tips and advice:
Nonetheless, every so often it will be in the news that some people have gotten ill with salmonella from eating tomatoes or spinach, for example--usually cases in which the food was contaminated by rodents in a warehouse somewhere.
Recently, you will have heard about salmonella outbreaks at several factory farms in Iowa producing eggs for grocery stores across the country. Eggs laid in factory farm conditions can be very dirty and germy, so undercooking them can cause serious illness.
Our Ohio hatchery is NPIP certified and our flocks are closely monitored. (We are also monitored for the H5/H7 strains of AI.) But when it comes to issues with Salmonella, contamination is FAR more of an issue with factory farmed birds that produce eggs for grocery stores, not with your backyard pets. This is because the conditions chickens are are kept in at factory farms are simply terrible. (You can Google information about this if you have a strong stomach, but to give you an idea, some of the conditions birds are forced to endure in factory farms include having to share cages or space with--and lay eggs on--other dead and rotting birds.) Since salmonella is food poisoning, it isn't an illness that passes from person to person or hen to hen like a cold. When chickens get salmonella, it is usually the result of hens eating rat droppings or worse in their tiny, dirty spaces at commercial egg farms. Yuck.
Presuming you don't keep your hens in the same inhumane circumstances they are kept in at factory farms---that is, presuming your coop is clean and roomy and you provide fresh food and water for them at all times---it is doubtful your home flock would contract salmonella. Birds in factory farms have immune systems that are already stressed by the terrible conditions they experience every day. At home, salmonella illness in your hens is easy to prevent: keep the coop clean and your hens happy. And most importantly, be alert to sign of illness so that if there is a problem, you can take care of it. But do be aware that your hens don't have to be sick with salmonella to transmit it to you. Remember, salmonella and other bacteria can be present in small quantities the feces of animals (including dogs and cats) whether they are sick or not. So when you pick up your bird who has been walking in and pecking around poopy litter, just wash your hands... the same way you'd wash your hands if your dog--who has been nibbling on canine-enticing cat poop in the yard--licks your fingers with doggy love. Use common sense.
A hen actually sick with salmonella will be immediately obvious: she will be weak, purple-combed, and have watery diarrhea as well as reduced egg production. In fact, it's hard to imagine that all those sick hens went unnoticed at those factory farms for so long. Even if workers could not manage to differentiate the symptoms of salmonella from all the other symptoms of distress that factory farmed chickens have routinely, surely they would have noticed the big drop in production. After all, even if factory farms don't care about the welfare of their birds, they DO care about production--it's what compels them to keep the birds in such terrible, dirty, cramped conditions in the first place. It's just cheaper. For that reason, it's rather terrifying to think they just kept selling their eggs when they must have been aware of a potential problem. Worse, the supplier of the two factory farms on which the recent outbreaks occurred apparently has a long history of violations according to the Associated Press.
If you are worried that your flock has somehow contracted this illness anyway, you should have your flock examined by a vet or tested. But in most cases, the eggs from your own backyard flock are probably the safest eggs you can eat. When you keep your own birds, you can personally monitor their health, and you can control what feed they eat and the conditions they live in. You can see when they may need medical attention, and you can provide it. Salmonella outbreaks at factory farms are another reason to keep your own hens. When you know anything about factory farms, you realize that the surprising thing here is not that there is an occasional outbreak; the surprising thing is that there aren't many, many more.