In a quest for better nutrition, longevity and health, many pet owners in Massachusetts are using non-traditional pet food diets. However, one diet in particular has been called into question by local veterinarians because of its potential to cause illness in pets. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began a study on the level of dangerous bacteria found in popular pet food products.
A two-year study conducted by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine discovered that more than any other type of pet food, raw pet foods are more likely to contain dangerous bacteria, such as salmonella and listeria. Over a thousand samples were tested from 196 different raw pet foods for cats and dogs. 32 products were found to contain listeria and 15 were found to contain salmonella.
Who Is At-Risk?
According to the FDA, these figures identify a potential “health risk” for pets that are eating raw pet food diets, as well as for the pet owners who handle the products during feeding. These illnesses are considered by the FDA to be “foodborne” because the bacteria that cause them are “borne”, inside of or on, the contaminated pet food. Compared to other types of pet food that were tested, included both dry and wet food varieties, raw pet foods are more likely to be contaminated with the bacteria known to cause illness.
The study also identified the individuals who would be most at-risk to contracting illnesses caused by the salmonella and listeria bacteria. Of course animals, the pets who consume these products, would be at the top of the list. However, these bacteria are also harmful to humans who come in contact with the raw pet food.
Women who are pregnant, as well as newborn babies, were specifically mentioned in the study as being at-risk to the dangers of being around raw pet food products. Non-pregnant individuals, including men, women, children, people with weakened immune systems and senior citizens, are also at-risk because of the dangerous nature of these bacteria.
What Is Salmonella?
Salmonella is a bacteria that was named after a veterinarian named Daniel E. Salmon who spent his career studying animal diseases for the USDA. Every year there are over 42,000 lab-confirmed cases of salmonella in humans that are reported to the Centers for Disease Control, while millions of milder cases are never reported or diagnosed. The CDC estimates that approximately 400 people die each year in the US from salmonella.
Salmonella is found most often in:
- raw or undercooked meat, poultry products, eggs and egg products
- raw or unpasturized milk and dairy products
- raw veggies and fruits
Symptoms begin between 12 hours and three days after exposure to the contaminated food. In humans, the symptoms can include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain. Animals, such as chickens, rodents, reptiles, amphibians and cattle can naturally carry salmonella inside of their intestines and show no signs of illness, however people can be exposed to the bacteria by handling these animals. Symptoms in dogs and cats can include vomiting, diarrhea, fever, a loss of appetite and a decreased activity level.
What Pet Foods Were Tested?
Besides the 196 samples of raw pet food that was tested, the study also included 120 samples of semi-moist dog food, 120 samples of semi-moist cat food, 120 samples of dry dog food and 120 samples of dry cat food. Out of all those samples, only 1 sample of dry cat food tested positive for salmonella. None of the dry and wet samples for dog and cat food tested positive for listeria.
In addition to testing dog and cat food products, the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine also tested dry pet food for exotic pets, such as dry pellets used for feeding rabbits, gerbils, hamsters, birds and amphibians. The dry exotic pet foods tested 100% negative for salmonella and listeria bacteria in 190 unique samples. They also tested jerky-type treats, which included chicken and pig ear variety treats, testing 190 samples and finding no instances of salmonella or listeria.
What Is Listeria?
Listeria is currently the leading cause of hospitalization and death associated with foodborne illness around the world. While more rare than salmonella and other common foodborne bacteria, listeria has a very high mortality rate of 20-30 percent. Over 90 percent of people who are diagnosed with listeriosis have to be hospitalized and the CDC estimates that 1600 people will become seriously ill and 250 of those will die as a result each year.
Listeria is found most often in:
- raw meats and vegetables
- processed meats, such as hot dogs and deli meat
- ready-to-eat raw and smoked seafood
- prepared salads, including fruit, vegetable and coleslaw
- unpasturized milk and milk products, including soft cheeses
Some animals, such as cattle and other livestock, can carry listeria without appearing to be sick. Symptoms can vary depending on where the illness begins to take place. Listeria can invade the bloodstream, gastrointestinal tract, membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and the brain itself. Symptoms can be seen after about three weeks following exposure to or consumption of the contaminated foods. Typical symptoms are flu-like illnesses with non-specific symptoms. Pregnant women are 20 times more likely to get listeriosis than other adults.
How to Prevent the Spread of Foodborne Illnesses in Raw Pet Food
While this information may lead many pet owners in Massachusetts to move away from a raw pet food diet and return to a more traditional product, some will continue to use these products. The best thing you can do to prevent your pet from being exposed to salmonella or listeria is to stop feeding a raw pet food diet immediately. There is also a real risk associated with human infection through the spread of bacteria from the contaminated food, which can come from touching objects, surfaces and people who have been exposed.
Here are some things you can do to reduce the risk if you decide to continue feeding this diet:
- wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after you handle raw pet food or touch objects and surfaces that have come in contact with the food product
- clean and disinfect all objects and surfaces that come in contact with the raw pet food product
- prevent bacteria growth by freezing raw poultry and meat products until you ready to use them, thawing them in the refrigerator or microwave
- all raw food products should be kept separately from other foods
- pet owners need to refrain from kissing their pet around the mouth or allowing their pet to lick their face
Healthy Advice for Pet Owners in Massachusetts
If you are currently feeding a raw pet food diet to your dog or cat, please contact your local veterinarian for healthy advice to avoid illnesses related to salmonella and listeria exposure. Your local veterinarian at Anchor Animal Hospital in Dartmouth can provide a wide variety of services to help you keep your pet healthy and in great shape. Call today to set up an appointment for an exam and consultation if you have any concerns possible illnesses as the result of a raw pet food diet. From regular check-ups to emergency veterinary care, Anchor Animal Hospital has been helping pet owners in Massachusetts take good care of their animals since 1975.