If you plan to have ducks around your baby human(s), you should know the risks involved and how to potentially mitigate them. In this article, we’ll also detail how and why we raise our baby human with ducks.
We’re not attorneys, vets, microbiologists, or pathologists. We’re just science-oriented parents who have kept ducks for about a decade and who also currently have a 15-month-old baby at home. This article is NOT intended as medical or life advice. There are potentially life-threatening risks involved with raising any animals — poultry included — due to pathogen spread and other factors.
Ok, with the legal disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at some big picture realities before diving into raising ducks and human babies (Years 1-4) together…
First, a video of our baby frolicking with his ducks:
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1. We live in a microbe-dominated world full of things that can make you very sick and/or very dead. Microbes also defend you and keep you alive.
If you’re reading this article, you’re a fellow “macro” organism. You’re big, but you’re actually coated inside and out with trillions of other individual microorganisms that help you function: bacteria, viruses, fungi, etc, aka microbes.
These microbes comprise your microbiome, and there are different communities of microbes that inhabit various regions of your body. When things are working optimally, these microbes maintain a certain balance and serve to protect and help the host (you). The same is true for every thing and every place on earth.
Soil microbes are similar to but different than ocean microbes. Soil microbes in a prairie ecosystem are different than soil microbes in a mature forest. The microbes living on a sloth are similar to but different than the microbes living on a fish.
The vast majority of microbes that live in and on you or that you encounter when moving through the world are either beneficial or benign. Thankfully, your nose often helps you avoid many of the most common bad microbes, whether that’s spoiled food or the treats your neighbor’s dog left in your yard.
However, in combination with your immune system, perhaps the single biggest factor that keeps you safe from “bad” microbes is your “good” microbes. Just as pest insects love a garden recently wiped clean of predatory insects via insecticides, pathogenic microbes love a void where they can proliferate unencumbered. That’s why chemotherapy patients who’ve essentially been wiped clean of microbial life and had their immune systems turned off are at elevated risk of various microbial infections.
Bottom line: our cultural microphobia (irrational fear or microorganisms) is out of kilter with the basic realities of the microbe-rich world we live in and depend upon for our survival and wellbeing.
2. Calculated risks versus taking no risks.
These statement are true:
- If you don’t have ducks around your children, the odds of your children getting sick from a duck are about 0%.
- If you don’t play sports, the odds of you getting a sports-related injury are about 0%.
- If you don’t ever go outside, the odds of you getting skin cancer from sun exposure are about 0%.
As you move through life, you take a series of calculated risks and you try to mitigate those risks using various safety processes and procedures. Maybe you wear a wide-brim hat or sunscreen when you’re outside to minimize skin damage, while also avoiding the midday summer sun. You wash your hands after using the bathroom (hopefully). You wear a seatbelt in your car (hopefully).
Likewise, if you do choose to have ducks around your human baby, there are things you can do to mitigate the inherent risks that go along with living in close proximity to ducks. (We’ll detail those below.)
3. The most popular pets (cats and dogs) present elevated health risks to children — along with health benefits.
In the US, over 60,000,000 US households have at least one dog and over 40,000,000 households have at least one cat. Many of these homes likely also have human babies.
As a result of owning a pet dog or cat, each one of these households has introduced a health risk that wouldn’t be present if they didn’t own pets:
Dog risks to babies:
- In 2019, 48 people died from dog bites, including babies and children. There were probably many thousands of injuries from dog bites. (For the record, there were zero deaths or injuries from duck bites in the same year — ha!)
- Domesticated dog poop contains 23 million bacteria per gram, which is far more than wild animals. Given the abundance of dogs per square mile in the US, dog poo & pee wreaks havoc on local water quality. Additionally, the bacteria in their waste presents an immediate, heightened health risk to humans (including babies) who come in contact with fecal bacteria on a lawn, dog fur, mouth, paws, blankets, etc.
- Pathogens such as campylobacter, salmonella, and parasites can easily be passed from a dog to a baby (or an adult).
Cat risks to babies:
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine details a laundry list of risks cats present to babies (and pregnant women), including:
- cat scratch disease (caused by bacteria in cat saliva and/or infected fleas);
- Pasteurella multocida (also caused by cat bites);
- Salmonella poisoning;
- A host of parasites, including Toxoplasma gondii (the parasitic protozoan responsible for toxoplasmosis), roundworms, hookworms, fleas, mange mites (which cause scabes), and others.
Does this mean you shouldn’t have dogs and cats around your human babies?
No! We think it makes sense to raise human babies with other animals while also actively taking steps to mitigate the known risks associated with the species of pet you have.
In addition to ducks, we have a cat, and our baby regularly interacts with dogs. Our baby is also outside in our organic garden for hours each day, munching sticks, leaves, and flowers while covering himself with soil. Why are we taking this calculated risk rather than keeping him indoors in a hyper-sanitized, sterile environment?
For one, research has shown that babies raised around dogs and cats (especially dogs) are much healthier than those raised in pet-free homes. The reason?
Your pets are seeding the living environment with microbes — both good and bad — which train your baby’s developing immune system on how to properly deal with good and bad microbes. Without this early life exposure, your immune system doesn’t get the input it needs to properly develop/boot up and can end up going haywire with the slightest provocation.
As Anita Kozyrskyj, a pediatric epidemiologist and the lead author on one such study put it: “The microbes are training the immune system to react to harmful entities like pathogenic microbes and not react to beneficial microbes and food nutrients.”
What does this mean for babies raised with dogs and cats? Less allergies, a healthier GI system, and a lower risk of obesity, among other benefits.
Beyond physical health benefits, there are also mental/developmental benefits for babies and children who grow up with pet animals. A meta-analysis of 22 studies found that growing up with pets led to higher self-esteem, cognitive development, and social skills.
Given the information above, you might rightly conclude that it’s a lot riskier NOT to raise your kids with these popular, bacteria-covered furry pets given the lifelong benefits they confer. But what about ducks and other animals?
In case you’ve never heard of it, the “hygiene hypothesis” goes something like this: until very recently in human evolutionary history, humans have lived outdoors alongside animals in microbe-rich environments. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t spray down their living environments with Lysol or carry hand sanitizer.
Thus, our various bodily systems (such as our immune system) have been fine-tuned by certain species of microbes (and even certain parasites) that are now largely absent in our modern sterilized, urban environments. As a result, some of the diseases and illnesses that are rapidly increasing in modern human populations (inflammatory diseases, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, certain types of cancer, etc) can be traced directly to the absence of our “old friends,” microbes that have been with us for eons.
Since the hygiene hypothesis was first proposed in the 1960s, much evidence has accumulated in support. One good way to test the hygiene hypothesis is to look at two highly genetically similar populations living in close proximity to one another, but with one major difference: one population lives like the typical westerner/American and the other population lives more similarly to our ancestors, e.g. lots of time outdoors and around lots of different animals.
Where to find such a population? The Amish.
In 2019, a team of researchers from Ohio State University took stool samples from Amish babies living on farms and non-Amish babies living in Wooster, a nearby city. Findings:
“The samples revealed important differences — particularly a wide variation in microbes and an abundance of beneficial bacteria in the Amish babies’ guts that wasn’t found in their city-dwelling counterparts. The researchers expected this, based on the infants’ exposure to the livestock and the fact that the Amish tend to live a relatively less-sanitized lifestyle than most other Americans.”
This next bit may be too much for you, but bear with us… The researchers then used the fecal samples from the babies to do fecal transplants into germ-free piglets, which are much more similar to humans than standard lab mice. Findings:
“Some of the colonized bacterial genera were correlated with the frequency of important lymphoid and myeloid immune cells in the ileal submucosa and mesenteric lymph nodes (MLN), both important for mucosal immune maturation.”
Translation: the bacterial species present in the Amish babies GI systems made a big difference in the generation of critical immune cells in the baby pigs who received fecal transplants from Amish babies. This study adds to others which have found Amish children have far less prevalence of asthma and allergies than their modern peers, partly owing to early life exposure to farm animals which helps train their immune systems.
CDC warnings about raising poultry
Now, imagine being tasked with providing generalized health advice for the US population about raising poultry. Should you tell an increasingly urbanized, non-agrarian population to raise farm animals in their apartments around their children so the kids will be healthier over their lifetimes? OR should you tell people who’ve spent their entire lives living in hyper-sterile environments not to take any risks? Not an easy job.
Each year, people (including babies and children) get seriously ill from diseases contracted from their backyard poultry, whether that’s salmonella, E. coli poisoning, or others. As such, the CDC has a series of warnings and recommended safety protocols for anyone raising poultry. We suggest you read them.
The CDC also notes: “Because their immune systems are still developing, children are more likely to get sick from germs commonly associated with poultry, such as Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli.” (For the record, all of these germs are also present with dogs, cats, and other animals, as previously noted.)
We’ve knowingly violated quite a few of the CDC’s safety protocols. For instance, the CDC’s advice, “Don’t let backyard poultry inside the house…” doesn’t exactly align with our often having diapered pet ducks roaming through our living areas. (Read: 9 tips and tricks for keeping indoor pet ducks)
Here’s the thing: if a baby from a hyper-sterile urban environment lived a day in the life of our baby, the clean city baby would have a fairly high likelihood of getting sick. Why? They haven’t had continuous exposure to all the microbes — good and bad — that our “wild” baby has. And we probably wouldn’t let the city baby near our ducks for that reason.
Thus, we’re not even going to attempt to provide generalized population-level advice for parents considering whether or not to raise their babies with ducks, poultry, or other animals. All we can say is this: we evaluated the risks and chose to raise our baby with lots of time outdoors surrounded by animals (some of which come indoors) in order to promote/enhance his immune system and lifelong wellbeing. However, that doesn’t make our decision right or wrong for your family/baby, especially if someone is immunocompromised or has preexisting conditions to consider.
Steps to reduce health risks while raising poultry
Here are a few things we do to mitigate risks of illness/disease spread from ducks to humans in our system:
1. No wild bird feeders.
There’s currently a salmonella outbreak being spread by wild birds in multiple states that’s infected and hospitalized dozens of people. This sort of outbreak isn’t the exception, it’s the norm.
While our yard is a giant biodiverse nature habitat full of songbirds, we let them spread out and forage their own food (seeds, insects, berries, etc). We don’t want to encourage every nearby bird or passing migratory to stop in at a single spot in our yard to eat and poop which would create a much higher concentration/potential for salmonella to infect our ducks or our baby.
2. Clean swimming water.
Ducks have a major hygiene advantage over chickens… Ducks take many water baths throughout the day and are fastidiously clean when it comes to their personal hygiene. Assuming they have access to clean water, these water baths (and subsequent preening) remove mites and pathogenic microorganisms alike. (See: How to build a self-cleaning pond with a biofilter.)
On the other hand, chickens take dust baths. In a backyard environment, that dust is likely to have a pretty high concentration of chicken poop in it.
If we raised chickens, we probably would not ever bring them indoors for this reason alone.
3. Keep our flock as healthy as possible.
Poultry can be sick, contagious, and completely asymptomatic at the same time. That means even though a beloved duck or chicken looks perfectly fine, they could be a carrier of a disease that could cross the species barrier and infect you or your baby.
Nevertheless, it pays to provide excellent care for your poultry in order to reduce the likelihood of them getting sick. That means high quality food, plenty of outdoor time/sunlight, foraging, swimming (in the case of ducks), clean bedding, etc.
Unhealthy animals are much less likely to be able to fend off microbial pathogens than healthy animals, which translates to less risk for their human caretakers.
4. Lots of hand washing (but not with anti-bacterial soap).
Morning and evening duck duties includes egg collection, food and water cleanups/top-ups, bedding top-ups, and other as-needed general maintenance. After each of these sessions, we wash our hands in warm water with soap. We either use Seventh Generation or Dr. Bronner’s soaps rather than anything too harsh or anti-bacterial.
We’re not trying to strip all microbial life off of our skin nor are we trying to add more pollutants to the public water system/environment.
5. Parent-guided duck visitations with baby.
Our baby LOVES his ducks. His first word outside of ma-ma and da-da was “duck.” The first word he says when he wakes up in the morning? Duck.
However, expecting our 1-year-old baby to gently handle ducks or not try to swallow their flippers is about as sensible as expecting him to fly. He doesn’t currently have the capacity to make very good decisions in the duck department.
To get him his daily duck fixes, we’ll pick up one of our ducks and model/teach him how to gently pet and handle them. (Nope, the CDC would not encourage this activity.) If he gets too excited and tries to take things too far, we’re there to protect him and the ducks.
6. Any indoor ducks are diapered.
We still occasionally bring a couple of our ducks indoors to overnight with us when we’re not feeling overwhelmed by parenting and other duties. Whenever we do, our ducks are diapered for reasons which we hope are obvious. (Hint: it’s the same reason we diaper our baby human.)
Our aim is a light seeding of microbes (good and bad) around our living environment, not to create piles of pathogens.
If you do decide to bring a duck indoors, diapering is a must. (See: How to diaper a duck with instructional video)
7. No shoes in the human house.
We’re not barbarians. We take our shoes off before we come in our house. We’d do that even if we didn’t have ducks.
Think about all the crud you walked through at the gas station, the public restroom, from stepping in the treat your neighbor’s dog left in your yard (he strikes again!). Do you really want to spread that crud throughout your house and the places your baby crawls through?
We’re CDC-compliant in this department. Their recommendation: “Set aside a pair of shoes to wear while taking care of poultry and keep those shoes outside of the house.”
8. Tend your own optimal health and your own microbes.
Unhealthy ducks are more susceptible to illnesses and diseases. The same goes for humans, whether that’s babies or adults.
There are plenty of things you can’t control due to genetic and epigenetic factors, luck, etc. However, you can do the best possible with the cards you’ve been dealt.
That means eat well — including eating plenty of fermented foods which are chock full of beneficial microbes (see a pattern yet?), regular exercise, etc. By making your and your family’s health a top priority, you reduce the likelihood of being overtaken by a pathogenic infection.
Our family is three people large (n=3), which isn’t a very large sample size from a research standpoint. However, we seem to be doing things right. Our baby has never been sick other than a two-day ear infection which he fought off without antibiotics. As for the The Tyrant and I: we never get sick either. (Read: I’ve been sick one day in 10 years. Here’s how to avoid getting sick)
This despite being surrounded by both terrifying and friendly microbes alike on a daily basis. Or perhaps it’s not despite, but — at least partly — because of our old microbial friends that we’re able to stay well.
We hope the information in this article helps you answer the question: is it safe to raise baby humans with ducks? There are lots of factors to consider either way, plus safeguards to put in place should you decide in the affirmative.
Preen your duck knowledge with other helpful articles:
- Duck health guide: first aid kit items, healthcare tips & more
- Raising mixed species poultry together: tips & advice
- How to hatch duck eggs: complete guide
- How to raise ducklings: a step-by-step guide
- Duck eggs vs chicken eggs: how do they compare?