It's no "chicken-and-egg" situation when determining how more than 900 people picked up salmonella infections so far this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The outbreaks are linked to contact with live, noncommercial poultry, such as chickens or ducks, which are growing in popularity as pets and as local food sources for backyard farmers.
Salmonella can live undetected inside the birds' gastrointestinal and reproductive tracts without harming them, but if the bacteria is ingested by humans, it can cause diarrhea, fever and abdominal pain that sometimes leads to hospitalization or in rare cases death.
As of Aug. 11, Tennessee had 43 reported cases in 2017 — tying it with Florida for the fifth most in the country — while Georgia and Alabama combined had 41 cases.
Dr. Marcy Souza, an avian veterinarian and public health professor at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, said the rise in salmonella outbreaks is a classic example of a public health crisis where there's a need for more education and collaboration between people and veterinarians.
"There's a lot of things that are great about having backyard poultry," she said. "I have three hens myself, but I think that a lot of folks that have them haven't necessarily grown up on a farm, so they don't know the basics about preventing disease transmission from animals to each other, as well as to our families."
Typically, salmonella infects people who eat undercooked eggs or meat, but it also can enter the body if people come into contact with contaminated feces and then touch their mouths.
Proper hygiene, especially washing hands after handling poultry, is the best way to prevent the spread of disease, Souza said.
Other tactics are important too, such as keeping a separate set of shoes around birds, removing eggs quickly after they're laid so they don't get dirty or cracked and debris off the eggs. Keep the coops clean, avoid kissing and snuggling the birds, and never bring birds or gear they touch, such as food bowls, into the house.
Souza doesn't recommend testing birds for salmonella because the test is often inaccurate, and unless chickens are sick they shouldn't be treated for salmonella because of the likelihood the bacteria would develop antibiotic resistance, making it difficult or impossible to treat if a person were to become infected.
Some advocates of backyard flocks believe they are safer than large-scale industrial farms. Souza said that although salmonella outbreaks can occur in these facilities, outbreaks are more common in backyard flocks where hygiene protocols may be less diligent.
Despite the health concerns, many people are passionate about their poultry and cherish the right to own and control their food sources.
Robert Temple and his wife, Jessie Gantt-Temple, of Soddy-Daisy, are among them.
"There's lots of resources about how to keep chickens safe and healthy and minimize the risk of salmonella," he said. "You really do it because you want to know where your food comes from and that the animals are treated humanely."
Temple, who grew up raising chickens on 40 acres in Maryland, has raised poultry on his farm for a little more than a year. He built a movable fence that allows the chickens to roam while being protected from predators, and he said the fresh eggs and meat are worth the labor.
"It's a nice connection to the earth — there's a lot of nice things about that — and I know those chickens are raised on grass, they see the sun and they have some quality of life," he said.
In Chattanooga, keeping chickens is illegal, despite being up for debate in 2013, yet some people own them anyways and backyard chickens' popularity keeps growing.
"I don't think backyard poultry is necessarily a bad thing — we just have to make sure we're informed consumers and chicken owners to prevent disease," Souza said. "It's just a matter of being aware that salmonella is a risk and taking the appropriate steps to prevent it — it's totally a preventable disease."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.