The government is warning people to stop cuddling chickens.

You read that correctly. Please quit hugging the poultry.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking eight salmonella outbreaks in the United States linked to contact with backyard chickens. So far, 372 people in 47 states, including Ohio, have been infected.

In 2016, the CDC saw a record-breaking 895 salmonella cases connected to pet poultry. And nearly half of the salmonella patients surveyed said they had snuggled with a baby chick and 46 percent said they allowed chickens in their homes.

Ohio tops this year’s outbreak list with the most cases, followed by Kentucky, Tennessee and California. According to the Ohio Department of Health, 37 cases of salmonella were reported between Jan. 4 and June 6.

A handful of cases in central Ohio have been linked to live poultry: two in Franklin County, one in Delaware County and one in Licking County.

What is salmonella?

Salmonella is a bacterium that lives in the intestinal tract of humans and animals.

People can contract the illness after eating animal products, such as under-cooked meat, eggs and unpasteurized dairy.

But it can spread through contact with animals, too. Salmonella can be present in an animal's poop and on their bodies, including feathers, feet and beaks.

Infected animals can appear healthy and clean, but still shed the bacteria, said Kim Machesky, an epidemiologist with the Ohio Department of Health.

All poultry have the same risk for transmitting the bacteria, but Machesky said baby chicks are often carriers.

"They're more stressed when they're babies," she said. "They're being shipped, they're co-mingling with other babies, they're shedding everywhere."

Symptoms are mainly gastrointestinal, including diarrhea, fever and cramps. More severe cases can spread the bacteria through the bloodstream and result in hospitalization. 

Infection is usually short-lived in most adults, but children younger than 5, adults 65 and older and individuals with weakened immune systems are at high risk for salmonella.

Urban farms

CDC officials suspect outbreaks likely will continue to rise as more people adopt backyard chickens.

In November 2016, the city of Columbus approved new regulations and permit fees for farm animals in the city to address concerns of urban farmers raising chickens and other animals.

According to Columbus Public Health, the city has 59 active permits for farm animals.

Radhika Iyer, an infectious diseases program supervisor with Franklin County Public Health, said the best bet for backyard chicken enthusiasts is to keep your hands clean.

"The first thing you can do is wash your hands thoroughly after touching the animals or anything in the area where they live and roam," she said.

And keep the critters outside. Iyer said that it is especially important to keep animals away from where food is prepared and served, such as kitchens and outdoor patios.

The CDC recommends that children 5 or younger should not handle poultry.

Backyard animal owners should clean their coops regularly, keeping separate cleaning supplies and even setting aside a different pair of shoes for the backyard.

What if you live next to an urban farmer? Iyer said not to worry.

"As long as the chickens aren’t in their backyard, then the risk is pretty low," she said.

And despite how darn cute the chickens may be, forget about snuggling.

shendrix@dispatch.com

@sheridan120