10 Health Precautions for Backyard Chicken Owners
Note: This page is for people who have a suppressed immune system, asthma, COPD or any condition that makes them especially susceptible to illnesses. A search of the BYC Forum or a Google search will help in obtaining further information about each of the illnesses and precautions mentioned below.
In order to remain healthy around chickens, most people don’t need to do anything other than wash their hands after handling their chickens. However, there are many people who must be extra cautious because of suppressed immune systems, asthma, COPD or other conditions that make them more susceptible to illnesses that might be transmitted via chickens. Since one of my little granddaughters battled cancer (she’s doing very well now), I’ve studied about and now practice strict health precautions in caring for my small backyard flock.
While it isn’t likely that you will contract an illness from your chickens, it is possible. Diseases such as Histoplasmosis, salmonella, farmer’s lung, bird flu and staph infections CAN be associated with being around chickens. So if someone in your household is susceptible to illnesses, the following guidelines will help to minimize your risks.
Wash Hands. This is a good practice for preventing illnesses from any source. Whenever you’ve collected eggs, handled chickens, worked in your chicken coop or filled water bowls and feeders, always wash your hands with soap and water afterwards.
Wear a face mask. Chickens create a tremendous amount of dust. That’s one of the reasons that ventilation is so important in a chicken coop. If your chicken coop is enclosed, wear a face mask whenever you work inside it – whether it’s filling feeders and waterers or cleaning. For me, the ear-loop masks are the easiest to use. I found some on sale at my local grocery store and bought several boxes. I keep a box at the entrance to my chicken coop. Whenever I enter the coop to work, I put on a face mask. If I’m just gathering eggs quickly, I usually don’t bother since I’ll only be in there for a few seconds. However, if you are especially susceptible to lung issues, wearing a mask every time would help.
Mist coop and roost areas with water. A VERY light mist of water will help to decrease the amount of dust. You don’t want the materials (shavings, straw, etc.) to be wet, though. Wet shavings/straw would only help bacteria grow! A light mist is all that is needed. Some people like to add bleach or Oxine to the water to help cut down on bacteria. If you use bleach, Oxine or other products, be sure to follow the directions on the package carefully to keep the proportions of the solution safe for your chickens.
Keep the coop clean. If you have a “poop board” under the roosting area, be sure and keep the droppings cleaned up. Putting dry sand under the roosts make it fairly simple to scoop up the poop frequently to keep down odor and bacteria. You might want to research the “deep litter method” also for managing your coop. I use the deep litter method for the coop floor, and I use sand for the poop boards. Find out what method works best for you and makes it easiest for you to keep your coop clean.
Change into clean clothing after working in the chicken coop. After working in the chicken coop, there is usually dust and other unwanted substances on your clothing. Have a clean set of clothes ready for afterwards, and wash dirty clothes as soon as possible.
Observe your flock. Whenever you’re around your flock, pay attention to how they look and what they’re doing. If there is anything unusual going on, check it out. If a bird appears sick, isolate it from the rest of the flock until you can determine what is wrong and take measures to correct it. In caring for animals of any kind, a watchful eye is vital.
Have a pair of “chicken coop” shoes. I keep a pair of slip-on rubber shoes by the backdoor. Anytime I go out to the chicken coop, I slip off the shoes I’m wearing and put on those shoes. When I return to the house, I switch back. This cuts down on germs being tracked into the home. Slip-on shoes makes this much easier.
Closely supervise children around chickens. Never leave children unsupervised around baby chicks or older chickens. There are immediate physical dangers such as an aggressive rooster who sees a small child as a challenge. Health-wise, children frequently put their hands in their mouths. Help them wash their hands thoroughly after handling chickens or eggs.
Wash eggs. There is a lot of disagreement both about the need to wash eggs and the need to refrigerate eggs. You will have to decide what you’re comfortable with. Because of my family’s need for extra precautions, I wash all the eggs I gather. As soon as I bring the basket of eggs inside, I wash the eggs gently with either an organic egg cleaner or a mild solution of dish soap. Use very warm water and don’t immerse the eggs in the water. Then rinse them well. After rinsing, pat them dry and place them in the refrigerator. Although washing eggs might remove the “bloom” (the natural protectant that covers the shell) we use our eggs up quickly. So that isn’t an issue for us.
Practice biosecurity. Biosecurity is basically a way to keep disease away from your flock and other people's flocks. Part of practicing biosecurity is to keep your chickens away from visitors and other birds, keep shoes, tools and equipment clean, don’t share tools and equipment with other chicken owners, observe your chickens carefully to watch for early signs of illness and report any signs of disease or unexpected deaths. When the chickens in your flock are healthy, there is much less risk of you becoming sick.
Chickens can be an amazing resource for food and entertainment, and keeping chickens is an effective step towards self-sufficiency. With just a few precautions, even people with suppressed immune systems and other health issues can enjoy the benefits of a backyard flock.