Chicken Owners Brood Over CDC Advice Not To Kiss, Cuddle Birds

Jul 16, 2015
Originally published on July 22, 2015 2:25 pm

Don't kiss your chickens!

That's the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is blaming a salmonella outbreak on backyard chicken owners being overly affectionate with their flocks.

The CDC says more than 180 people have come down with salmonella across the U.S. this year from contact with backyard poultry. Thirty-three of them became so sick they required hospitalization.

"We do not recommend snuggling or kissing the birds or touching them to your mouth," says Megin Nichols, a veterinarian with the CDC, "because that is certainly one way people become infected with salmonella."

Over the past 10 years there's been a boom in backyard poultry in the U.S. And while the CDC may view chickens as potential vectors of disease, a growing clutch of chicken owners views them as family pets.

Take the Mattkes, who live in a tidy suburban house on a quarter-acre lot on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.

"This is my favorite, Caledonia," Lynette Mattke says as she holds a sturdy, black and white Barred Rock hen. "I think she's the prettiest, too."

In clear defiance of the new CDC guidance issued this month against chicken/human cuddling, Caledonia is a snuggler.

"You see Caledonia, she just cuddles in. She loves to stick her head under my arm," Mattke says. "Our friends who come to visit [the chickens] are always so surprised at how soft they are. Because I guess people think about their beaks and their feet, which aren't soft. But their feathers are just so smooth and soft."

All of the Mattkes' hens have names. In addition to Caledonia, there are Lucky, Godiva, Fizby, Raven and Pearl. Mattke says her whole family loves the chickens.

"As soon as those baby chicks were in our house, we were a family that was completely smitten," she says.

Mattke says they're very careful about hygiene around the chickens. But she's more worried that some disease or a predator might strike her flock than she is about catching something from the birds.

Her 18-year-old daughter, Elia, says picking the chickens up lets you connect with them, and that's important.

"If they're used to humans holding them then you can walk in [to the coop] without worrying about are they going to jump or get scared," she says. "You want to be able to come into the pen to feed them and water them without them starting to fly all around and go crazy."

Like her mother, Elia is a big fan of the birds. She still remembers when they got their first mail-order chicks just over a decade ago.

"They came in this little box. We were so excited and we kept them in hamster cages because they were so small, they were like this big," she says holding out her cupped palm.

Neighborhood kids of all ages come over to see the chickens and help collect the eggs. Some of the kids like to swing with the birds on the swing set. The Mattkes even put out a "swimming pool" — a small pan of water for the hens to wade in during the summer.

Mattke says the birds are a surprisingly calming presence. Sometimes if she needs a little "de-stress" time, she'll bring a stool into the coop and sit with the hens. "They come. Caledonia will jump up in my lap. They make this peaceful farm noise. What's better when you're in the middle of a workday than to hear that?"

The CDC is arguing against this type of casual human/chicken fraternizing.

"While poultry do appear clean they do carry bacteria," says CDC vet Nichols.

She also warns that backyard chicken owners should make sure their birds stay in the backyard and do not come into the house.

"We encourage that people live in their environments indoors and poultry stay outdoors," Nichols says. She adds that if people do handle their chickens, they should make sure to wash their hands afterward.

Mattke says the benefits of holding these dynamic, interesting pets outweigh the risks. Plus, she adds, you can't beat fresh eggs for breakfast.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Don't kiss your chickens. That is the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it is a serious message. The CDC is blaming a salmonella outbreak on backyard chicken owners, who are apparently being overly affectionate. Here's NPR's Jason Beaubien.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The thing you need to know about backyard chicken owners is that many of them are not just doing this for the eggs. A lot of them love their birds. In a tidy suburban neighborhood in Silver Spring, Md., just inside the Capital Beltway, Lynette Mattke is feeding her six hens in her backyard coop.

LYNETTE MATTKE: This is my favorite, Caledonia. I think she's the prettiest, too.

BEAUBIEN: Caledonia is a sturdy, inquisitive, black and white hen. In clear defiance of the new CDC guidance against chicken-human cuddling, Caledonia is also a snuggler.

L. MATTKE: You see, Caledonia just - she just cuddles in. She loves to stick her head under my arm. She likes sort of the football hold. Hi, sweetie. Our friends who come and visit them are always so surprised at how soft they are because I don't know if people think about their beaks and their feet, which aren't soft, but their feathers are just so smooth and soft.

BEAUBIEN: Lynette's 18-year-old daughter, Elia, remembers when they got their first baby chicks just over a decade ago.

ELIA MATTKE: Oh, we were so excited and we kept them in hamster cages 'cause they were so small. They were, like, this big.

L. MATTKE: (Unintelligible) Fluffy, fluffy chicks.

BEAUBIEN: The CDC says all of this - cuddling your chickens, keeping them in hamster cages in the house - is a bad idea.

MEGIN NICHOLS: We do not recommend snuggling or kissing the birds or touching them to your mouth because that's certainly one way people become infected with salmonella.

BEAUBIEN: Megin Nichols, a veterinarian at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says more than 180 people in the U.S. have gotten salmonella this year due to contact with backyard poultry. Thirty-three of them got so sick they ended up in the hospital. Nichols says chickens can carry salmonella in their digestive tract.

NICHOLS: We would advise against people hugging and kissing poultry, especially young children. We would also advise against posing them in photographs, especially during Easters. And these cute photos still can be obtained by using stuffed toys or other props in place of live birds.

BEAUBIEN: But for a hardcore backyard chicken enthusiast, stuffed toys or chicken props just wouldn't cut it. For people like the Mattkes, their chickens are a central part of their home. They have a special bond with these birds. Lynette Mattke says they've named all of their hens and each one has a unique personality.

L. MATTKE: As soon as those little baby chicks were in our house, we were a family that was completely smitten.

BEAUBIEN: Neighborhood kids come over to visit the chickens and help collect the eggs. Some of the kids even like to swing with the birds on the swing set. The Mattkes put out a swimming pool - a small pan of water - for the hens to wade in in the summer. Lynette says she finds it calming to sit next to the chickens and watch them explore their yard. Elia adds that picking them up is an important part of connecting with them and caring for them.

E. MATTKE: If they're used to humans holding them then you can walk in without worrying about, like, oh, are they going to, like, jump up or get scared? 'Cause you want to be able to come into the pen to feed them and water them without them, like, starting to fly all around and go crazy.

BEAUBIEN: While the CDC advises against gratuitous chicken holding, the Center says the salmonella risk can be greatly reduced by washing your hands after contact with the birds. Lynette Mattke is more worried about her flock getting mauled by suburban raccoons than she is about salmonella. Her main point is that engaging with chickens, including holding them, lets people see what dynamic, interesting creatures chickens are. Plus, she adds, they provide eggs for breakfast. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.