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Public Health - Seattle & King County

Backyard poultry

Backyard poultry have become increasingly popular in recent years as interest in locally produced food, including eggs, has grown. Many local municipalities allow a limited number of domestic fowl on residential properties. Before getting a backyard flock, it is important to understand issues related to legal aspects, husbandry and health, and diseases that can be spread by poultry to people. Fortunately, there are many great resources available locally and online for owners of backyard poultry.

Speckled hen
Legal aspects of poultry ownership
Backyard poultry husbandry
Keeping your flock healthy
Disease risks to people from poultry
Safe handling of eggs from your backyard flock
Food safety tips

Legal aspects of poultry ownership

Before getting chickens or ducks, check applicable local regulations to find out how many chickens you can legally keep where you live. The City of Seattle, for example, allows up to 8 domestic fowl on any city lot (see SMC 23.42.052 Keeping of animals), and the City of Bellevue allows up to 6 fowl (PDF). In unincorporated King County the number depends on the size of the property (see Chapter 21A.30 Development Standards - Animals, Home Occupation, Home Industry, Section 21A.30.020.)

If you plan to sell eggs at a retail outlet you will need an Egg Handler/Dealer license from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA). A license is not required to sell eggs from your own flocks directly to household consumers at the place of production. More information is available in the WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Handbook (PDF).

Backyard poultry husbandry

Educate yourself about poultry husbandry before getting your flock. For chickens, you will need a coop and enclosure with proper feeding and watering systems where your flock will be comfortable and safe from predators. The presence of chickens on a property might attract domestic dogs and cats as well as wild predators such as raccoons, coyotes, foxes, bobcats and cougars. In addition to the danger predators present to the chickens, their presence increases the chance of conflicts between predators and humans. It is important to have sufficient structural protection to prevent predator access to your chicken flock.

If you decide to compost manure and used beddings then it is important to learn how to do so safely to avoid contaminating your garden with dangerous pathogens (organisms that can cause disease). Proper composting creates heat, which will help destroy potentially harmful bacteria. Control of rodents around chicken coops is extremely important as mice and rats are attracted to the feed, will contaminate the area with their droppings, may eat the eggs, and can damage structures. Rats will kill and eat baby chicks. Furthermore, rodents carry diseases that can spread to people such as leptospirosis and hantavirus infection.

Keeping your flock healthy

You can greatly decrease the risk of disease entering your flock and persisting in soil, droppings and debris by following 6 basic backyard biosecurity tips recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

  1. Keep your distance -- Restrict access to your birds and allow only people who take care of your birds to come into contact with them.
  2. Keep it clean -- Use a designated pair of shoes or shoe covers, and a designated set of clothes or clean and disinfect your shoes and clean your clothes before entering the coop.
  3. Don't haul disease home -- New birds should be separated from your flock for 30 days. Birds that have been to fairs or exhibits should be separated from the rest of your flock for two weeks. Clean and disinfect poultry cases and other equipment that have been to another location where birds are present.
  4. Don't borrow diseases from your neighbor -- Don't share birds, lawn and garden equipment with other bird owners.
  5. Know the warning signs of infectious bird diseases -- Early detection of signs is very important to prevent spread of disease. They may include sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge, diarrhea, lack of energy, poor appetite, drop in egg production, or sudden death of multiple birds.
  6. Report dead and sick birds -- Immediately report dead or sick birds to the WA State Department of Agriculture's (WSDA) Avian Health Hotline at Program at 1-800-606-3056 or the USDA Veterinary Services Office at 1-866-536-7593 or your local veterinarian.

Individual dead birds weighing less than 15 pounds can be disposed of in the household garbage. Place the bird in two sealed plastic bags. A bird weighing less than 15 pounds may also be buried on the owners' property. But disposal in the garbage is usually a better option to avoid predators digging up the carcass. When a disease outbreak is suspected or you don't know the cause of death, you can report dead birds to the WSDA or USDA by calling the toll-free phone numbers listed above. They can also provide consultation on how to dispose of several dead birds.

Resources

Girl holding a chickDisease risks to people from poultry

Baby chicks and ducklings commonly shed bacteria such as Salmonella that can cause human illness. Young birds are often shipped several times before they reach a permanent home. Shipment and adapting to new locations causes stress on birds and makes them more likely to shed bacteria in their droppings. Salmonella bacteria can be shed in large numbers in the droppings. They can be on the shell or inside the egg.

Birds infected with Salmonella do not usually appear sick. Salmonella infection is spread via the fecal-oral route. People can get infected by ingesting Salmonella bacteria if they don't wash their hands after contact with poultry or their contaminated environment or by eating food or drinking water or milk that has been contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. Person infected with Salmonella can spread it to others if they don't wash their hands after using the bathroom.

Infection with Salmonella can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, fever, vomiting, and dehydration. The risk of infection and more serious illness is higher for children under 5 years of age, pregnant women, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

There have been several outbreaks of Salmonella infection in people resulting from contact with baby poultry, including a multi-state outbreak in 2011 in which almost half of the cases were 5 years of age or younger. In 2006 three different Salmonella outbreaks associated with baby poultry were reported.

Campylobacter is another bacterium that is common in poultry and can cause human disease. Infected poultry can shed Campylobacter in their droppings. It can cause diarrhea, cramps and vomiting in people. Raw or undercooked chicken is one of the most common sources of human infection.

Avian influenza (or bird flu) occurs naturally among birds. Backyard poultry can get infected by contact with other birds, including wild birds. Currently, public health officials are concerned about an avian influenza virus (known as H5N1) that has been sickening poultry and some wild birds in other parts of the world including parts of Europe, Asia and Africa. H5N1 virus does not usually infect people, but a small number of cases have resulted from people having direct or close contact with H5N1-infected poultry or H5N1-contaminated surfaces.

To avoid getting infections from poultry, it is important to follow these guidelines:

  1. Always wash hands thoroughly after touching chickens or ducks or anything in the area where they live. Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are not available. Adults should supervise hand washing for young children.
  2. Do not clean cages, feed or water containers, or other poultry related equipment inside your house or in areas where food is prepared.
  3. Do not let live poultry inside your house, in bathrooms, or especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens, or outdoor patios.
  4. Do not snuggle or kiss baby poultry, touch your mouth or eat or drink or smoke around baby poultry.
  5. Do not give baby poultry to young children. Children younger than 5 years of age should not touch baby poultry.
  6. Keep eggs and left-over egg-containing foods refrigerated at 45ºF or less at all times. Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
  7. Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs, including restaurant dishes. Cook eggs until the white and the yolk are firm (145ºF) and eat promptly.
  8. Thoroughly wash hands and all food contact surfaces with soap and water after contact with raw eggs. Then disinfect food contact surfaces as follows:
    • Apply a mix of 1 teaspoon liquid household bleach per gallon of cold water.
    • Do not rinse.
    • Let air dry.
    • Prepare the bleach solution fresh daily.

Resources

Brown eggsSafe handling of eggs from your backyard flock

Eggs can contain harmful bacteria including Salmonella. Salmonella bacteria can be on the shell or inside the egg. Always wash your hands with soap and water immediately after collecting eggs or working in the chicken coop. For your protection follow these instructions for collecting and cleaning eggs:

  1. Maintain clean and dry nest boxes, change nest material as needed to reduce dirty eggs. Gather eggs at least once daily.
  2. Clean eggs soon after collection, but only if soiled. Minimal cleaning preserves the natural protective coating.
  3. Acceptable egg cleaning methods include:
    • Spot clean or lightly sand the stains or small dirty spots with sand paper.
    • Quickly rinse with warm running water using a spray bottle, then immediately wipe dry with a single disposable paper towel.
    • Do not soak eggs or use detergents or cleaners not approved for egg cleaning.
  1. Eggs are a perishable food, so cleaned eggs must be held under sanitary conditions and refrigerated at 45ºF or less at all times.
  2. Thoroughly wash hands before and during egg handling to minimize cross-contamination of finished eggs.

Resources

Food safety tips

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. Salmonella is the single most important foodborne disease now. In addition to contact with live poultry, people can get infected with Salmonella bacteria by eating raw or undercooked poultry products or other food that includes raw eggs (e.g. cookie dough) or has been contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. The tips below can also help prevent other foodborne diseases such as infections with Campylobacter and E. coli.

  1. Keep eggs and left-over egg-containing foods refrigerated at 45ºF or less at all times. Discard cracked or dirty eggs.
  2. Do not drink unpasteurized milk or eat products made with unpasteurized milk (e.g. cheeses).
  3. Do not eat raw or undercooked eggs or raw or undercooked meat, including restaurant dishes.
  4. Do not cut vegetables or other ready-to-eat foods on the same cutting board as chicken or meat without thoroughly cleaning the knife and the cutting board first.
  5. Cook eggs until the white and the yolk are firm and eat promptly.
  6. Use a food thermometer to check that poultry and meat are hot enough to kill harmful bacteria:
    • Poultry: 165ºF
    • Ground meat (beef, pork and veal): 160ºF
    • Pork (except pork sausage): 145ºF
    • Steaks and other beef, veal, lamb, and fin fish: 145ºF
  1. Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water before or after contact with raw eggs or meat.
  2. Thoroughly wash all food contact surfaces with soap and water after contact with raw eggs or raw poultry or other meat. Then disinfect food contact surfaces as follows:
    • Apply a mix of 1 teaspoon liquid household bleach per gallon of cold water.
    • Do not rinse.
    • Let air dry.
    • Prepare the bleach solution fresh daily.