The American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that children under five avoid any contact with chickens. When I first began raising both children and chickens simultaneously, I thought this recommendation was a bit extreme, and chalked it up to the CDC being overly cautious. What I didn’t understand was the very simple principle of hand washing that eludes children under the age of five.
The risks of children handling chickens
The best way to describe the serious risks that children and chickens can pose for one another is with an unfortunate story of personal experience. When my daughter was two, we got a shipment of chicks that arrived on what should have been a spring weekend in Vermont, but was in fact a very cold, unseasonably snowy one. The chicks had to come into the house, as the brooder we had set up in the barn was too cold. We should have put them straight into a warm and temporary brooder in the basement, but we were overtaken by the festive atmosphere the lively chicks brought with them on such a dreary day, so the birds took up a brief residence in a plastic tub by the wood stove in our living room. Our five-year-old was wonderful with them; very docile, gentle, and careful to wash his hands meticulously after holding a chick. Our two-year-old was less so. She ended up squeezing one of the chicks too hard, crushing the breath out of it so quickly and efficiently that the bird immediately died. Then, she must have wiped her mouth or nose with the same lightning speed because two days later, she came down with a fever and diarrhea. According to our pediatrician, she had contracted salmonella.
We kept my daughter well hydrated and she quickly recovered from the incident, but we were all chastened by the experience and felt incredibly foolish for having been so careless. Now, she is three years old, but still not yet trusted with the baby chicks. She knows that she may look at them and feed them (heavily chaperoned) by sprinkling feed into their brooder, but she is a good two seasons away from being trusted with holding them once more, both for her safety and theirs.
Precautions to take when raising backyard chickens with children
While children are more likely than adults to get sick from contact with chickens, the truth is that you don’t have to be three years old to contract salmonella. Salmonella can live on any surface where chickens live, and your chickens don’t have to be sick to carry the bacteria. Because of this, it is important to practice clean, low-grade methods of biosecurity when raising backyard chickens. The CDC recommends a couple of obvious, but still helpful reminders for anyone who comes in contact with these creatures on a regular basis:
- Wash your hands
- Avoid contamination via footwear
- Collect eggs daily
- Don't wash your eggs
- Discard cracked eggs
Wash your hands
It's incredibly important to always wash your hands after chicken chores. You don’t need to have touched a chicken to come in contact with salmonella; their coop, bedding, feed and water bowls, and any other surface they've tread on can carry it. Make a habit of washing your hands with soap and hot water after feeding, watering, egg collecting, and coop cleaning, and ensure that your child (ideally five or older) does the same.
Avoid contamination via footwear
Consider allocating a special pair of garden clogs or boots to your chicken chores. These should be used only for chicken-related tasks; ideally, they're easy to slide your feet in and out of. These shoes should not come inside your house, and storing them outdoors in a shed or barn eliminates a major potential contaminant in your home.
Collect eggs daily
The longer an egg sits in the coop, the more likely it is to be pooped on. On my farm, we collect our eggs during evening chores so that the chickens don’t try to sleep on top of them. Removing eggs from the coop on a regular basis reduces many risks, and is worth your time, even if you have a very small flock.
Don't wash your eggs
Never wash your fresh eggs with water. Cold water can actually pull bacteria from the shell into the egg itself, and warm, soapy water can remove the cuticle, which protects the contents inside. Instead, use fine grit sandpaper or a brush dedicated to egg cleaning to wipe off any small streaks of dirt or chicken feces.
Discard cracked eggs
While you're collecting eggs, monitor them for cracks. Always compost or feed fresh cracked eggs to your dog or cat. The likelihood of contamination (which can make humans sick) is just not worth the risk.
Chickens as an educational tool
Though there are certain precautions that must be taken, there's no need to be intimidated by the prospect of raising children and chickens at the same time. Words like "salmonella" and "CDC" can have an intimidating effect on a first time chicken keeper and parent, but once you've read through the guidelines above, you'll find that this advice is common sense that will actually help your children learn valuable, helpful habits that also apply in other areas, such as the garden, kitchen, and with family pets.
Just like raising a pet or tending to a garden in tandem with children helps to enrich kids' understanding of the world, food production, and responsibility, so too will raising your children alongside chickens. Learn from my foolish mistake, and you will find that raising kids with chickens isn’t much more difficult than raising the two separately.
A note from Pete & Gerry's: For generations, our family of farmers at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs has been dedicated to revolutionizing the way eggs are produced in the United States. We believe that consumers deserve better eggs from happier chickens living on small farms run by fairly paid farmers, and that’s what we have dedicated our business to. We also believe deeply in the transparency and verification of our standards, which is why we became a Certified B Corporation in 2013. It’s also why our farms meet the rigorous Certified Humane Free Range and USDA Certified Organic standards. We take the welfare of our hens, the sustainability of our farms, and health and happiness of our partner farmers and consumers very seriously. The resulting eggs are ones that stand out in the supermarket; they remind consumers of the eggs from their childhood farms and excursions abroad in Europe. And we're happy to be second best. In fact, we believe that everyone deserves a chance to raise hens right in their backyard and experience the joys that come with raising and growing food at home. Kate MacLean of Longest Acres Farm is here to tell you how.
Kate MacLean lives and works on 120 acres of land known as Longest Acres Farm in Chelsea, VT with her husband Nick, son Leland, and daughter Amelia. As an ex-city-dweller, she gained valuable experience working on friends' and neighbors' farms before making the move to rural Vermont with her family in search of a fulfilling, self-sustaining way of life.
Her breadth of experience in farming and raising countless varieties of chickens and other livestock on Longest Acres Farm not only makes Kate an expert in her field, but an advocate for home grown food and self-sustainability.