Poultry can be good pets, but skip the indoor chickens

A group of chickens milling about.
Chickens are great additions to a homestead, but should not be brought into the house.| photo by Julia Bayly

There are few things cuter than a fuzzy, warm baby chick. But close interaction or cuddling with that same chick or its adult poultry parents can be a real health risk for humans. So, turning a chicken into an indoor house pet is not a good idea.

“Chickens harbor harmful bacteria,” said Dr. Dora Mills, former director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and current senior vice president with MaineHealth. “They can look fine and healthy, but they can carry bacteria very harmful to humans including salmonella and Campylobacter.”

Both of those bacteria affect millions of people in the United States every year, according to the US Centers for Disease Control, and both can be fatal in extreme cases. At the very least, both bacteria can cause a great deal of digestive and intestinal discomfort including diarrhea, stomach cramps and vomiting.

Which is why, Mills said, practicing good, consistent hygiene with any poultry is crucial. That begins with housing the birds in an appropriate coop separate from human living quarters.

“I’m all for raising chickens, but chickens do not belong in the human home, ever,” Mills said. “There is a big difference between a chicken and a cat or a dog.”

Indoor chickens pose risk for humans

The dangerous bacteria, Mills said, can live on the chickens’ feathers and be easily transferred to humans through touch. The bacteria also live in the birds’ feces and be transferred to any surface on which a chicken decides to poop.

Some fans of chickens will place a homemade diaper on a chicken to capture any excrement, but Mills cautions that will not protect humans. The bacteria living in the feces can escape the diaper and transfer to humans. Bathing a chicken before bringing it inside won’t help either.

“Bathing [the chicken] is not helpful,” she said. “It’s not like they are picking up the bacteria outside and you can simply wash it off.”

The risk of exposure to poultry-bourne bacteria is especially great to children under five, adults over 65 and anyone with a compromised immune system.

“It’s never a good idea to have chickens living inside a house,” said Dr. Carolyn Hurwitz, a poultry specialist at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Bringing a chicken into your house is effectively turning the home into a barnyard with all the associated contamination risks.”

A naked chicken is a happy chicken

As for the trend of dressing chickens in sweaters or other articles of clothing? While it may look cute, it can actually harm the bird — and humans too.

A chicken wearing a sweater or any sort of “shirt” is unable to naturally regulate its body temperature by fluffing its feathers. The chicken also can’t get the full benefits of a dust bath. Plus, harmful mites or lice can live quite happily in sweater fabric. That fabric is also good at picking up stray chicken feces and other organics which can then be transferred to humans through touch.

The only article of clothing ever necessary for a chicken, according to Coffin, are special “aprons” for hens that cover and protect their backs from overly amorous roosters. 

Other than that, a naked chicken is a happy chicken.

Avoid cross-contamination

Coffin stressed that chickens and anything associated with poultry should never be anywhere near spaces where human food is stored or prepared.

“Items such as food and water bowls from chicken coops should not be washed or cleaned where human food is prepared or served,” according to the Centers for Disease Control. “There is a risk of cross-contamination [and] it is best to set up an area outdoors to clean and disinfect equipment used to care for poultry.”

Practice common sense

Mills said there is no reason adults and children can’t enjoy interacting with their chickens, but they have to use common sense.

“It’s fine to pick up a baby chick and play with it,” Mills said. “But don’t put it near your face and be sure to thoroughly wash your hands after playing with the chicken or chick before you touch any food.”

Bottled hand sanitizer or plain soap and water are equally effective in washing away any bacteria that may have transferred from a chicken to person, Mills said.

“Handwashing is key,” she said. “It’s a good idea to keep a bottle of hand sanitizer near your coop.”

Above all, remember that even pet chickens are still chickens.

“There can be a disconnect for some people when the chickens are living in the house,” Hurwitz said. “People can forget they are barnyard animals that carry harmful bacteria.”

There is also the real risk of transporting diseases between flocks if people play with their own house chickens and then go to a friend’s house and play with their indoor chickens.

 “You can be introducing diseases or bacteria from one bird to another,” Hurwitz said.

Temporary indoor housing precautions

If you absolutely have to bring a bird indoors to recover from an injury or illness, there are some things to keep in mind to protect humans and fowl.

“The risk to the chickens is small if they are brought indoors,” said Dr. Donna Coffin, an educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “But once they are acclimated to warmer indoor temperatures, they will need to be kept warm all winter.”

That means even bringing a chicken into a warm area like a shop or garage to recover from an injury or illness means that bird must be housed at that same indoor temperature for the rest of the winter after it is recovered.

Always keep the birds away from spaces frequented by the human household members and never allow the birds near areas where food is prepared and eaten.

Coffin recommends the CDC’s websites on Healthy Families and Flocks and FAQs on Backyard Poultry on reducing the risk of disease transmission from birds to humans.

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