How to Steer Clear of Salmonella in Backyard Chickens

Infections from the bacteria in home flocks have sickened thousands in recent years, and the CDC just announced a new outbreak

GIF of hens in chicken coop moving
Vanilla, Chocolate, and Goldie perched on top of their chicken coop.
GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

As a journalist who writes about food safety, I’m used to reporting on illness outbreaks that stem from poultry produced by major companies. But bacteria from food-producing animals can also originate closer to home in backyard chickens. 

On June 9, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that so far in 2022, 219 people in 38 states have become ill with salmonella infections from contact with backyard poultry. About 12 percent of those people were hospitalized and one person died.

And this isn’t the first time people have become ill from handling birds. In fact, in 2020 and 2021 salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks across the country caused at least 2,857 illnesses, 606 hospitalizations, and three deaths, according to the CDC. Of those infected during those three years, about one-fourth were children younger than 5 years old.

The surge in illnesses coincides with the increasing numbers of Americans—in rural, suburban, and urban areas—who started raising chickens since the beginning of the pandemic as a way to provide their own eggs. And while the birds harbor a variety of bacteria, salmonella is one of the most worrisome and prevalent.

More on Food Safety

“In general, poultry is heavily associated with salmonella, so if you have poultry, most likely you will have salmonella in the environment at some point,” says Richard Blatchford, PhD, a poultry researcher in the department of animal science at the University of California, Davis. 

He notes that there are many strains of salmonella, which can live in the intestines of the birds and be transferred to their eggs. Some of the salmonella strains that make people sick don’t affect chickens, so seemingly healthy birds can still carry salmonella and shed it. And if you touch a contaminated bird or egg, or come in contact with their feces or anything else in their environment and then touch your mouth, you can get sick.

My brother and sister-in-law were ahead of the pandemic rush on chickens and have owned their own backyard flock for several years. So I decided to visit them and their birds in suburban southern New Jersey to see what precautions they’ve taken to avoid the spread of salmonella.

It was my nephew Zach's idea to raise chickens in his family's backyard.

Zachs Chicken Coop

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

“I’m pretty conscientious about keeping the area clean,” says my sister-in-law, Judi Rabkin. “I’m also careful about basic hygiene—like washing my hands after feeding the chickens—to try to avoid picking up any germs.”

Blatchford says that keeping things hygienic is critical, and he also recommends several other steps that owners of backyard flocks can take to reduce the risk of illness. With these tips, which are consistent with recommendations from the CDC, you can enjoy your chickens—and their eggs—while avoiding the spread of salmonella.

Choose Chicks From Reputable Farmers
When buying chickens, look for a farm or hatchery that participates in the National Poultry Improvement Plan, which means that it monitors its poultry for certain diseases and won’t sell eggs or chicks that are carrying specific dangerous bacteria. “If the hatchery is part of the NPIP, it tests regularly for salmonella strains, and the poultry should be clean,” Blatchford says.

Build a Fence
Even if your chicks arrive salmonella-free, the pathogen can still be in the environment. For instance, rodents and other wild animals can carry salmonella and spread it to your chickens. The best way to guard against predators or other animals from coming into contact with your chickens is to put secure fencing around your coop.

The enclosed fence keeps predators away from the chickens.

Chicken in coop behind fence with white arrow pointing to it

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

Clean Your Coop Regularly
If your coop is overflowing with waste and chicken feces, it’s harder to contain the germs, so it’s important that you clean it periodically. Note that there’s no exact science on how often a coop should be cleaned. “It varies depending on how many birds you have and what kind of material you have in your coop,” Blatchford says. “It’s hard to describe how a dirty coop looks but you know it when you see it, and you want to clean it before you start to smell it.” As a point of reference, my sister-in-law cleans the family’s coop about once a week.

Keep Your Coop Supplies Separate
While most people don’t think of creating a germ barrier between their backyard and their home, you’ll want to avoid tracking bacteria from the coop into your house. To do this, designate specific shoes to wear while in the coop, or put on disposable booties to be used only when around the chickens and their droppings. (My sister-in-law keeps a supply of paper booties for guests, like me, to put over shoes when visiting the chickens.) Also, keep coop tools (like rakes or shovels) separate from other backyard tools so you don’t contaminate your garden supplies with chicken bacteria. And if you lend your coop tools to a friend or neighbor, disinfect them between uses. “Sharing tools is one of the main ways that microbes flow between backyard flocks,” Blatchford says.

Wearing disposable booties inside the coop keeps you from tracking bacteria into the house.

Putting on booties over shoes

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

Don’t Get Too Cozy With Your Chickens

“Because backyard flocks are this mix between food animal and companion animal, we, as owners, sometimes do certain behaviors that are really risky in terms of food safety—like kissing and cuddling them,” Blatchford says. But it’s critical to remember that chickens carry bacteria that can make you sick. So avoid getting cuddly with them, wash your hands after handling them, and consider changing your clothes if you’ve held them in your arms. My family will admit that it’s hard to resist the occasional cuddle, especially when you have baby chicks.

Cuddling chickens is generally a no-no. But if you do pick up a chicken, clean your hands afterward.

Gif of person cuddling a chicken with a red x over it

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

Handle Eggs Smartly

Because eggs can carry salmonella, follow these tips when handling them:

  • Collect eggs from the nest often so that they are less likely to break and get dirty, which could spread bacteria.
  • Don’t wash the eggs before storing them. Freshly laid eggs have a clear biofilm on their shells. This layer has antimicrobial properties that protect the inside of the egg from external microbes. Plus, washing the eggs in cold water can cause the membranes inside the eggs to contract, which can suck germs through the shell’s pores to the inside of the egg, where they can multiply.
  • To remove dirt, you can wipe the eggs with a paper towel or fine sandpaper. “For people who are really grossed out by not washing eggs, you can wash them right before you use them,” Blatchford says. “Even if there is salmonella on the egg, it won’t have a chance to get into the egg, and you’ll kill the salmonella when you cook it thoroughly.”
  • Store the eggs in the refrigerator to prevent any germs that may be on the shell from multiplying. (Bacteria thrive in warm environments.)

Collect eggs carefully and often.

Placing eggs from chicken coop into basket

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

Wash Your Hands

After touching the chickens, their food, eggs, waste, or cleaning tools, thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water to avoid spreading their germs. You can also use hand sanitizer in a pinch. For instance, my sister-in-law keeps a bottle of hand sanitizer hanging on the outside of her coop, which cues everyone to clean their hands after visiting the chickens.

My sister-in-law Judi gives my kiddo Lena some hand sanitizer after they're done in the coop.

Woman giving person hand sanitizer in from of Zach's chicken coop

GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports GIF: Rachel Rabkin Peachman/Consumer Reports

Know the Symptoms of Salmonella

If you experience symptoms such as diarrhea, a high fever, bloody stool, or vomiting, see a doctor.

Editor’s Note: This article, originally published on July 28, 2021, has been updated to include new information from the CDC about salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard chickens.

Rachel Rabkin Peachman

I'm a science journalist turned investigative reporter on CR's Special Projects team. My job is to shed light on issues affecting people's health, safety, and well-being. I've dug deep into problems such as dangerous doctors, deadly children's products, and contamination in our food supply. Got a tip? Follow me on Twitter (@RachelPeachman).