Baby chicks may look cute nestled in Easter baskets this time of year, but bacteria could be lurking in those cuddly little feathers.
Offered for sale online and in feed stores during the spring months, baby chicks can carry salmonella, even when they appear healthy and clean. Public health officials are warning Mainers — especially those who are parents of young children — to take precautions when handling the fuzzy fowl.
“It’s a phenomenon that happens right around Easter time,” Dr. Stephen Sears, state epidemiologist, said. “We don’t have any idea how many [baby chicks] are actually sold, but we do know that it’s a reasonable amount and we just want to make sure that people are safe and know what the risks are.”
Since the 1990s, 45 outbreaks of human salmonella infections linked to live poultry have been reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreaks include more than 1,500 illnesses and five deaths.
In Maine, three cases of salmonella infections linked to live poultry were reported last year out of more than 120 cases nationally, Sears said.
Young children are particularly at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and they’re more likely to cuddle the baby birds and then put their fingers in their mouths. Health officials recommend that children younger than 5 don’t handle baby chicks at all.
Live poultry — also including ducklings, goslings, and baby turkeys — may have salmonella in their droppings and on their bodies. People can be exposed to the germ by holding, cuddling or kissing the birds or by touching contaminated items such as cages and water bowls. The bacteria can sicken people when they touch their mouths or eat with contaminated hands.
Salmonella, more commonly associated with contaminated food, typically causes diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps. Illness can be severe and sometimes requires hospitalization. Infants, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of salmonella infections.
While people come into greater contact with baby chicks, adult poultry also can carry the bacteria, Sears said.
“All poultry can be associated with this, but most people don’t have the intimate contact with chickens that they have with baby chicks,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sent letters to feed stores with advice about how to keep customers and employees safe from salmonella.
At the Blue Seal feed store in Bangor, a poster detailing the risks of salmonella hangs near half a dozen baby chicks now on display, according to manager Snookey LeCleire-Karst. Employees urge children not to touch the birds, and recommend that customers who do handle the chicks use hand sanitizer provided by the store, she said.
“We’d rather be safe than sorry,” LeCleire-Karst said.
Health officials recommend that children:
• Do not put their hands in their mouths after touching chicks
• Do not kiss chicks on their beak or feathers
• Do not handle or clean cages or food containers
• Do not eat or drink near baby chicks
• Do not put their mouths on objects that have been near chicks or their cages
Children younger than 5 should not handle baby chicks, but if they do:
• Keep chicks out of the kitchen and other living areas
• Wash children’s hands thoroughly with running water and soap after contact with chicks
• Contact a health care provider or go to a clinic if the child experiences diarrhea or vomiting
“We’re not telling people not to do it, we’re just telling them to be aware,” Sears said.