Baby chicks are adorable, but they could make you sick

A Cornish cross chick at Farmetta Farm in Morrill. Gabor Degre | BDN

Now that mid-April is upon us, I feel obligated to fulfill my duty as a health reporter and rain on everyone’s Easter parade with dire warnings about disease lurking in unexpected places.

I’ve written before about the risks of contracting salmonella from baby chicks, but Easter is a time of resurrection, so here I go again.

Many people purchase baby chicks in the spring, or pick them up for a quick pet during a trip to the feed store. But poultry can carry salmonella, even if the birds appear clean and healthy.

Baby chicks — as well as ducklings, goslings, and baby turkeys — may harbor the bacteria in their droppings and on their bodies. If you handle them, or even touch contaminated surfaces such as cages and water bowls, you can pick up the germ on your hands. Salmonella then makes its way into the body when you touch your mouth or use your hands to eat.

These Peeps are safe to put in your mouth.

REUTERS/Eric Thayer

These ones are not.

Source: MetroCreative

Adult poultry can carry salmonella too, but we’re not as likely to cuddle a full-grown chicken (most of us, anyway).

Children are particularly at risk, because they’re more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after handling chicks, or nuzzle their faces into those downy little feathers. Plus their immune systems are still developing. For those reasons, the U.S. CDC recommends that children under age 5 don’t handle live poultry at all.

Salmonella typically causes diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps. The illness can be severe and sometimes requires hospitalization.

The risk might seem remote, but last year the U.S. saw a record number of illnesses linked to contact with backyard flocks. Nearly 900 people were infected as part of several outbreaks, including five individuals in Maine. A little under a third of the infections were in children under 5.


Tips to avoid salmonella

Health officials recommend the following:

  • Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available.
  • Children younger than 5 years of age, older adults, or people with weak immune systems should not handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.
  • Don’t snuggle or kiss the birds, touch your mouth, or eat or drink around live baby poultry.
  • Don’t let live baby poultry inside the house, especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens or outdoor patios.
  • Don’t eat or drink where the birds live or roam.
  • Don’t give live baby poultry as gifts to young children.
Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.