Backyard Hens: Knowledge And Risks
Spring 2015 saw the worst-ever outbreak of bird flu, during which an estimated 42 million birds were systematically killed across the U.S., all in the name of human safety. The incident highlighted a major issue with the increasingly popular practice of keeping “backyard” chickens: the risk of transmitting various zoonotic diseases from birds to humans.
Although numerous studies of bird flocks in developing countries suggest that there is a significant threat of disease transmission when birds are raised in an urban setting, very little research has examined this issue in small-scale bird flocks in developed countries such as the U.S. Here, the so-called “locavore” movement, aimed at reducing carbon emissions and ensuring food security, is gathering speed. Most commonly, people keep backyard flocks of hens to eat their eggs.
One of the diseases most commonly associated with urban hen husbandry is salmonellosis. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 600 incidents in which humans contracted the disease from backyard birds. The more that people live alongside chickens and see others treating them as companions, the more physical contact humans are likely to have with these birds.
In fact, reviews indicate that many people handle birds much as they would dogs or cats, including petting, cuddling, and kissing them. One investigation by the CDC revealed that 80% of respondents who had contracted salmonellosis had kissed and cuddled young ducklings or chicks, and this may be how they contracted the disease.
Researchers in Montana set out to investigate whether a lack of expertise in chicken health among people who keep these birds is responsible for the intensified pathways of disease exposure. They asked respondents to declare how knowledgeable about chicken health they perceive themselves to be and also to classify how safe some typical coop maintenance activities are. A mismatch between how knowledgeable respondents declare themselves to be and their actual knowledge of coop maintenance safety would indicate a risk of mis- or under-reporting of disease among backyard hens.
The respondents were mainly female (81%), and approximately half were over 50 years old. They had lived with backyard hens for an average of six years, ranging from less than a year to 38 years. On average, they lived with 15 birds at any given time, while seven respondents reported having over 40 birds. Most participants indicated that they had acquired the hens to eat their eggs. However, 63% said they had the birds for enjoyment or recreation. Interestingly, 52% indicated that they might use their birds for meat, demonstrating that hens often aren’t treated in the same way that other companion animals would be.
The results revealed that participants who had named their chickens had a higher than average risk score, likely because they considered the birds companions and therefore had more physical contact with them. The score also increased with the number of birds kept. Those who had kept hens for longer had slightly lower risk scores (although not statistically significantly), possibly meaning that individuals who are newer to living with chickens are less careful and put themselves at greater risk. The researchers found that 39% of participants had brought sick birds into their homes to care for them—a high-risk behavior.
The responses showed that respondents had a wide range of knowledge levels and that people who keep hens may have an inflated sense of their own expertise. Conversely, this could also indicate that concern for disease is not of high importance or that materials explaining safety issues well are not easily accessible. This suggests that across all knowledge levels, people lack caution in their husbandry practices, and that diseases may therefore not be recognized early enough to address the transmission risk.
This pioneering study suggests that there’s a great need for better promotion of safe husbandry practices among people who keep backyard hens, in order to reduce the risk of disease transmission, including from chickens to humans. The authors suggest that people with backyard hens implement measures to prevent cross-species contamination (e.g., special water and feed systems), identify local veterinarians who are proficient in bird health, have birds vaccinated, and establish safe handling practices.
Although many animal advocates don’t endorse the practice of keeping backyard hens, the number of people among the general population who do so is increasing, and advocates can help ensure the well-being of these birds and other animals who come into contact with them by publicizing the potential health risks and the preventive measures that can be taken.