Killer Chickens

Joey Cresta published an article on page A4 in the July 1 Seacoast Sunday titled Doctor: chicken keepers need to beware. The article said “Dr. Marilyn Svihovec, an applied kinesiologist who operates a practice out of her home on South Road in Rye, said that backyard chicken coops are ‘so cute,’ but may harbor a nasty parasite that causes toxoplamosis.” Before calling for a ban on backyard chickens you might want to do a little research. Our Town Code Enforcement Officers and Town leaders have a few more important things to worry about then the remote chance that your case of toxoplamosis came from the backyard chicken of a neighbor instead of the cute little gerbil that was passed around the 3rd grade classroom or that loveable little tabby that scours the kitchen counters at night between using the litter box and jumping into bed with you.

In fairness, the article did state, perhaps understate, the role that domestic cats play in the toxoplasma gondii life cycle. Here is a brief except from what the Mayo Clinic has to say:

“Toxoplasma gondii (T. gondii) is a single-celled parasitic organism that can infect most animals and birds. But because it reproduces sexually only in cats, wild and domestic felines are the parasite’s ultimate host.

When a person becomes infected with T. gondii, the parasite forms cysts that can affect almost any part of the body — often your brain and muscles, including the heart.

If you’re generally healthy, your immune system keeps the parasites in check. They remain in your body in an inactive state, providing you with lifelong immunity so that you can’t become infected with the parasite again. But if your resistance is weakened by disease or certain medications, the infection can be reactivated, leading to serious complications.

Although you can’t “catch” toxoplasmosis from an infected child or adult, you can become infected if you:

·         Come into contact with cat feces that contain the parasite. You may accidentally ingest the parasites if you touch your mouth after gardening, cleaning a litter box or touching anything that has come in contact with infected cat feces. Cats who hunt or who are fed raw meat are most likely to harbor T. gondii.

·         Eat contaminated food or drink contaminated water. Lamb, pork and venison are especially likely to be infected with T. gondii. Occasionally, unpasteurized dairy products also may contain the parasite. Water can be contaminated with T. gondii, too, but this isn’t common in the United States.

·         Use contaminated knives, cutting boards or other utensils. Kitchen utensils that come in contact with raw meat can harbor the parasites unless the utensils are washed thoroughly in plenty of hot, soapy water.

·         Eat unwashed fruits and vegetables. The surface of fruits and vegetables may contain traces of the parasite. To be safe, thoroughly wash all produce, especially any you eat raw.

·         Receive an infected organ transplant or transfused blood. In rare cases, toxoplasmosis can be transmitted through an organ transplant or blood transfusion. “

The Mayo Clinic only mentions birds in passing as a vector for the parasite. Certainly they can carry the parasite, especially if you let them run free in the house where you keep you cats’ litter box. In all seriousness, the article does make very solid comments about the need for cleanliness of your chicken coop, the need for ample room to roam and not letting your chickens eat kitchen remnants and outright waste. Sound advice that also applies to horses, cows, pigs, goats, sheep, etc. etc.; so apply some common sense with the care and feeding of your pets and your future dinner.

There is one paragraph in the article that does comment on histoplamosis which has similar symptoms as toxoplamosis and is something that you should pay attention to. Again from the Mayo Clinic:

“Histoplasmosis is caused by the reproductive cells (spores) of the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum. The spores are extremely light and float into the air when dirt or other contaminated material is disturbed. Even if you’ve had histoplasmosis in the past, you can still get the infection again. However, if you contract histoplasmosis again, the illness will likely be milder than the initial infection.

The histoplasmosis fungus thrives in damp soil that’s rich in organic material, especially the droppings from birds and bats. For that reason, it’s particularly common in chicken and pigeon coops, old barns, caves and parks. Histoplasmosis isn’t contagious, so it can’t be spread from person to person. “

You might want to wear a mask when sweeping up the bat guano in the attic or your chicken coop floor. You might want to wash your hands thoroughly after applying that composted chicken manure to your garden. The next time you drop your cigarette on the fairway to make that shot to the green before you pick it up again, consider the number of Canadian Geese that call your favorite course home. Who would have thought that smoking could be so dangerous?

The last thing we need to do is incite people ‘from away’ to enact a health ordinance that prevents the raising of backyard chickens. We should be spending more time educating people in the basics of agriculture and animal husbandry. When properly managed backyard chickens are less likely to cause you and your family a health problem then that cute little ball of fur purring away on your lap.

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