Seattle’s backyard chickens: Fair or fowl?

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Seattle’s backyard chickens: Fair or fowl?

Ph.D. student investigates risk of Salmonella infection for owners
Elizabeth Sharpe

My mother-in-law raised a trio of American Araucana chickens in her Seattle backyard: Egg, Mac, and Muffin.
A hen couldn’t find a better roosting place. While no exact number can be tallied, raising urban hens for eggs or as pets within the city limits is widely popular. 

Health tips for urban chicken keeping
health tips for urban chicken keeping

A flock of one’s own has obvious benefits, but there may be risks as well. Even while Egg, Mac, and Muffin may appear to be their normal plucky, clucky selves, they may be less healthy to your gut than their namesake sandwich, if you aren’t careful.
Who better to quantify the risk of keeping live poultry than a public health veterinarian by the name of Fowler? Heather Fowler is a Ph.D. student in environmental and health sciences at the UW School of Public Health. In addition to a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania, she also has a Master of Public Health degree in applied epidemiology and biostatistics from Yale University.
Fowler is interested in human and animal disease connections. This summer she investigated  the risk from Salmonella for people who keep  backyard chickens. She also reminded owners about safe practices in caring for their flock. Salmonella, a diarrhea- and fever-causing pathogen, can lead to serious illness in young children, the elderly, and others with weak or compromised immune systems.

Earlier this year, 363 people in 43 states, including Washington, were infected with Salmonella from live poultry, and a third of those infected required hospitalization, according to a Center for Disease Control report.
No one knows the consequences of Salmonella better than one of the participants in Fowler’s study, Bryan Prazen. He contracted it while in high school and was hospitalized for a month. Now a data scientist, he lives with his wife and 20-year-old son and raises four chickens.

Courtesy of Rob Brown
Jasper Brown, 9, helps his family raise chickens in Shoreline.
picture of Jasper Brown holding a chick in Shoreline

 In King County, hatcheries, local feed supply stores, and other suppliers must post signs alerting customers of the risk of Salmonella infection from baby chicks, according to Leah Helms, a health and  environmental investigator at Public Health - Seattle & King County. She provides businesses with resources, including posters, flyers, and an infection control plan. Hand-washing facilities or sanitizers are required near where the chicks are on display to help prevent infection and the spread of germs. Retailers must also provide educational flyers to customers on washing hands to prevent infection.

“If you can quantify the risk of Salmonella from contact with flocks, that tells people a lot,” said Fowler, who busy analyzing reams of data she gathered from 50 backyard flocks and their owners over the summer.  

She is creating  a quantitative microbial risk assessment. The mathematical model will measure the risk based on various activities in caring for chickens by estimating exposure, the concentration of the bacteria on surfaces, the likelihood the bacteria could cause illness, and safeguards in place to prevent exposure. She plans to publish her findings and share them with the study participants and others. For study participants like Bryan Prazen who wanted to know if their flock had Salmonella, the story ends well. Fowler didn’t find Salmonella among their backyard flocks,
“This doesn’t change anything,” Fowler explained when she called each participant with the results. She encouraged  them to continue to wash their hands, among other recommended care practices, because the tests she ran do not guarantee that their flocks will never have Salmonella.
The environment is always changing, explained Fowler. Bacteria are sensitive to temperature changes and humidity. Added to the mix, rodents attracted to stored feed can introduce Salmonella, too.
Still, everyone Fowler  met loves their backyard birds. Cautious, like Bryan Prazen, yes. But no one chickened out.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention offers health tips for keeping chickens.