Earlier this spring, my husband, our Labradoodle and I moved into our new home in an urban area of coastal San Diego.

This neighborhood has it all – the beach, a vibrant downtown, lots of restaurants, shops and people. And chickens.

Yes, chickens are permitted under the San Diego Municipal Code, as long as they are kept 50 feet from any residence. But our next door neighbor’s chicken coop was less than half that distance from their house and within 50 feet of our house. Their half-dozen well fed hens free-ranged in the back yard, on their entry deck and into their kitchen.

Now, I have no problem with the excited sound that a hen emits when she successfully produces an egg. It is, after all, the highlight of her day. On the other hand, I have a huge problem with the flies, vermin and rodents that free range chickens attract to their immediate area. Inevitably, these “groupies” spill over into adjacent areas – including ours.

We explained to the neighbors that the chickens didn’t bother us, but that the spillover of the birds’ noisome groupies onto our property was unacceptable. We asked them to keep their yard and hen house scrupulously clean to minimize the hangers-on. When nothing happened, we complained to the City. The chickens are now gone, as is the coop.

The birds have moved a city block away, to the backyard of another household, where they are picked up and cuddled by the family’s children and their friends under the watchful eyes of an adult.

Clearly, some people either haven’t heard – or refuse to believe – that apparently healthy chickens and other poultry can harbor and spread Salmonella, Campylobacter and other diseases.

Families in 15 US states ignored the risk when they purchased chicks or ducklings as family pets this year.

CDC is tracking an outbreak of Salmonella Altona that has sickened 39 people since February 25th. Nearly half (44%) of the illnesses are in children under the age of five. More than one-quarter (28%) of the victims have been hospitalized.

Illnesses associated with the outbreak have been reported in Georgia (1), Indiana (1), Kentucky (4), Michigan (1), Maryland (3), Minnesota (1), North Carolina (6), New York (2), Ohio (8), Pennsylvania (4), Tennessee (2), Virginia (3), Vermont (1), Wisconsin (1), and West Virginia (1).

Patient interviews pointed toward contact with chicks and ducklings as a common element. Lab analyses yielded Salmonella Altona from three samples from a chick and its environment collected from an ill person’s household in Ohio, and three environmental samples collected from chick and duckling displays at two locations of a national feed store chain in North Carolina.

According to the Ohio Departments of Health and Agriculture, the chicks and ducklings were supplied by an Ohio company – Mt. Healthy Hatcheries, Inc.

CDC offers the following advice to people who want the experience of keeping poultry:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water right after touching live poultry or anything in the area where they live and roam. Adults should supervise hand washing for young children.
  • If soap and water are not readily available, use hand sanitizer until you are able to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
  • Clean any equipment or materials associated with raising or caring for live poultry outside the house, such as cages or feed or water containers.
  • Do not let children younger than 5 years of age, elderly persons, or people with weak immune systems handle or touch chicks, ducklings, or other live poultry.
  • Do not let live poultry inside the house, in bathrooms, or especially in areas where food or drink is prepared, served, or stored, such as kitchens, or outdoor patios.
  • Do not snuggle or kiss the birds, touch your mouth, or eat or drink around live poultry.