Chicken diapers? CDC issues Salmonella warning for chicken farmers keeping animals as pets

DENVER, Colo. -- As the urban farming movement continues to grow, health officials are raising a red flag about Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.

There is particular concern about people bringing chickens into their homes and treating them as pets or "lap chickens," complete with chicken diapers.

Mary, a Denver resident who did not want to reveal her last name, has even launched a business selling the diapers.

"They're just really, really tame, and they want to be near humans," said Mary, petting her two chickens, Henny and Penny. "I wouldn't have them in the house all the time, but once in a while it's nice to let them in."

But in a CDC warning , health officials said they are investigating two large, multi-state outbreaks of Salmonella tied to backyard flocks.

One strain sickened people in 37 states. One person died from that strain.

Some people were reportedly "kissing or cuddling with" the birds, according to CDC investigators.

The CDC said even poultry that appears healthy and clean can still be shedding germs that make people sick, and chickens should not be allowed inside people's homes.

Candice Burns Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Emergening and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases with the CDC, said an email to our Denver sister station KMGH, "Just like you wouldn't walk around your house and touch surfaces with raw, uncooked chicken, you also shouldn't allow your live poultry to have contact with surfaces in your home."

In 2012 alone, public health officials uncovered eight outbreaks in which people got sick with germs spread from contact with poultry in backyard flocks.  These outbreaks caused at least 517 illnesses, 93 hospitalizations and fours deaths, according to the CDC. 

Health officials said that for every case of Salmonella illness reported to the CDC, there are about 30 more that don't get reported. 

The people most at risk for getting a serious illness from contact with live poultry include young children, people with weakened immune systems and adults older than 65 years.

People become infected with Salmonella germs when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with animal droppings in or around their mouth.

Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths.

"I never had a problem, and I don't think most people would," said Mary. 

She said there is no difference between her chickens and other bird pets, except her chickens give something back.

"See, there you go," she said, lifting up a brown egg. "I love fresh eggs."

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