Thursday, December 30, 2010

CLUCK Addresses Public Health Concerns Posed by Backyard Chickens

One recurring area of concern regarding backyard chickens has been a perceived public health problem. CLUCK has taken these statements very seriously and concedes that the transmission of diseases from pets to humans is always a legitimate area of concern. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has a publication Health risks associated with raising chickens that summarizes health risks associated with chickens. This document emphasizes risks associated with Salmonella bacteria and provides a dozen recommended actions to minimize risk, the best known of which is hand-washing. It should be noted that Salmonella is a well-publicized risk with store-bought eggs and chicken meat and that a variety of other pets, including reptiles, amphibians, and fish (animals normally kept indoors) can all transmit Salmonella.

The University of Florida IFAS Extension has published a document What are the risks of contracting diseases associated with chickens? that concludes While nothing is risk-free, the risk of contracting Avian Influenza, Salmonella, E. coli, or mosquito-borne encephalitis by participating in embryology projects is extremely small.”

It is worth noting that the CDC flags fourteen separate diseases that can move from cats to people, and fifteen separate diseases that can move from dogs to people. It is for this reason (the fact that all pets carry health risks) that public health experts do not flag chickens as posing any greater risk than other pets. CLUCK has received a copy of an email to this effect written Sarasota County’s Director of Environmental Health, Chuck Henry.

Another source of concern is so-called Bird Flu or Avian influenza. If you check the World Health Organization Global Alert and Response website, you’ll see there are no cases of Avian influenza in North America. In addition, according to the CDC Avian influenza is a somewhat misleading name as the influenza A (H5N1) virus has been found in pigs, domestic cats, and dogs.

Finally, in addition to diseases, pet-related injuries should be considered. We found no data related to injuries caused by female chickens. In contrast, the New York Times reported recently that in 2008 about 866 people a day went to the emergency room with dog injuries and about 26 were admitted each day and that treatment for those admitted averaged $18,200 per person. And In Sarasota County in 2009, 31 people needed rabies shots from possibly rabid mammals that could not be located for testing. Chickens cannot transmit rabies.

It is worth reflecting upon the fact that CLUCK is proposing backyard chickens that would have limited contact with humans, while dogs and cats are typically brought into the home and cats are typically encouraged to defecate in the home -- a fact that looks a little strange in print, but is nonetheless true. Cat litter that contains the Toxoplasmosis parasite poses a serious threat to unborn children. CLUCK is not arguing against keeping dogs and cats as pets, rather we are pointing out that all pets pose health risks and we find ways of dealing with those risks that do not involve prohibiting the keeping of those species.

Bottom line: If we were allowing people to have pets based on the risk of disease transmission to humans, cats and dogs (with similar mammalian systems) would be near the end of the list. Chickens would presumably be somewhere near the top (after chia pets, sea monkeys, and pet rocks?). 

But lower risk is not no risk and CLUCK supports proper sanitation for both the health of the chickens, chicken keepers, and neighbors. Young children and people with compromised immune systems are at the greatest risk. Handwashing after contact with animals is now a common protocol for all animals. 

CLUCK appreciates the concern regarding public health, but after reviewing CDC material and other sources, concludes that the health risks associated with backyard chickens are both manageable and less than the risks posed by more common pets.

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