Many people are often put off from switching their cat or dog to a raw diet because of a fear of their pet or family contracting salmonella and other pathogens found in raw meat, such as listeria and E.coli.
So is there any basis to this? Or is it just another raw feeding myth?
Few pet owners are aware that the wide sweeping statement that “raw diets are dangerous because of bacteria” is a generalization with little basis in fact. People too often make the mistake of assuming that what is dangerous for we humans is similarly dangerous for our pets. It is widely known that eating undercooked or raw chicken can give us Salmonella poisoning, and many apply this fact directly to their four legged friends without a second thought or any idea whether this may or may not be actually true. Many veterinarians will use this argument to persuade their clients to feed a dry food (which, surprise surprise, they just happen to sell in their practices) despite most veterinarians having little or no training in canine nutrition. Unfortunately many will believe without question what they are told by someone in a white coat – and then go on to repeat that advice to others. Before long, the issue of bacteria has taken on the form of an urban myth, spread by whisper and ignorance.
So what are the facts?
In a US study in 2013, it was found that 97% of all tested chicken breasts from national retailers contained potentially harmful bacteria: E.coli (65% of samples), Campylobacter (43%), Klebsiella (14%), Salmonella (11%) and Staphylococcus aureus (9%) – to name but a few. Only this week in the UK, over 80% of a supermarket’s chickens were found to contain Campylobacter. Sounds serious, right?
Not necessarily so! Firstly, it must be stressed that not all bacteria is harmful – food poisoning only comes from select strains of E.coli, for example, and other strains of the same bacteria are positively beneficial. E.coli and Campylobacter are ubiquitous and live naturally in the intestines or soil and water around us, just as MRSA can live on our skin without any issue. They are not necessarily indicative of poor quality meat or bad hygiene, but can occur everywhere.
It therefore must follow that many raw diets contain some of these potentially dangerous pathogens. So why do those of us who have long fed a raw diet not see more sick dogs?
The most important facts to remember are:
- humans are no longer able to tolerate a lot of the natural pathogens which occur in raw meat. We have effectively ruined ourselves by becoming over-used to cooked and processed foods meaning we no longer have the natural defenses to these bacteria in our bodies. The mistake often made is that we tend to humanize our pets and forget that they are different to us in so many ways; they have different nutritional requirements, better natural defenses and a physiology designed to process raw meats – unlike us. We must follow good hygiene rules to protect ourselves and our families from these naturally occurring bugs.
- humans are the only animals to cook their foods. Mother Nature has designed our pets to survive perfectly well on uncooked meats, and until the day that my Ridgeback (intentionally) turns on my stove at home, I will continue to feed him a raw diet. (I say “intentionally” for a reason but that’s a whole other story…!)
- a dog’s digestive tract is capable of digesting iron, with a pH of 1 (compared to between 4 and 5 for humans), and is extremely well developed to deal with any nasty bugs that may be ingested. We’ve all had dogs that have eaten dubious scraps when out on a walk that would probably kill you or I!
- a dog’s saliva contains the enzyme lysozyme, which assists in killing any potentially harmful bacteria. Humans do not have this.
- the intestinal tract of a dog is only about 5% as long as that of a human. This effectively prevents bacteria from having sufficient time to enter the dog’s body. The bacteria is harmlessly excreted usually within a day of having been ingested. The fact that a dog’s poo may contain this bacteria is the reason cited by many pet therapy associations as to why a raw fed dog cannot be a therapy dog, as it is feared that this could led to vulnerable people being exposed to potentially fatal infections. (The fact remains, however, that all dog poo can harbor dangerous bacteria – it has been estimated that a single gram of dog waste can contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, which are known to cause cramps, diarrhea, intestinal illness, and serious kidney disorders in humans. The issues these associations therefore really have is with inconsiderate dog owners not cleaning up after their pets, rather than what that pet is being fed at home – but that’s for another blog!)
So do the above statements mean that a dog cannot catch salmonella? Unfortunately not. Whilst rare, it is not unheard of for a dog to suffer food poisoning – but in those instances it is usually the case that the dog has an already compromised immune system, is generally unwell, or has eaten something extremely contaminated.
A recent survey of 1000 dog owners by the Facebook Raw Feeding Group, the Rawfeeding Rebels, clearly showed that the alleged spread of harmful pathogens by a raw diet was nothing but myth. In fact, the only dogs that actually contracted salmonella were fed a dried dog food (kibble), or the bug was known to have been contracted from a non-pet food source.
Furthermore, a study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2010 found that dry dog food (kibble) was linked to multiple outbreaks of Salmonella across the USA (half of which occurred in children), resulting in over 23,000 tons of kibble being recalled. The Salmonella was found in the flavorings sprayed on to the kibble, and resulted in the complete closure of the processing factory in question.
Now that’s food for thought!