How Safe Is Your Pet’s Food?

Right now, there’s nothing more controversial in the pet food industry than a raw food diet. Pet parents, veterinarians and pet dietitians all seem to be split on the benefits concerning a raw food diet. The United States pet food industry made $20.64 billion in 2012—more than vet care, live animal purchases and pet services, such as grooming and boarding, combined—according to americanpetproducts.org. A quick look on pet food industry shelves hints to raw food’s appeal: Fresh, high quality, wholesome, natural with added vitamins and minerals, all natural.

And the list goes on for descriptive terms proclaiming commercial raw food pet diets as the best option for Fifi or Fido.

Today, there are 64 pet food companies that have a market in North America, and nine are raw pet food companies, according to PetFoodIndustry.com, a watchdog website for pet food manufacturers—Bil-Jac Foods, Bravo, Bucket O’ Beef, Dogswell, Nature’s Variety, Stella & Chewy’s, Tucker Time, V.I.P. Petfoods and Wysong. (The profile for each company is available here.)

The packaging of these companies may promote glorious red chunks of meat and drooling canines, but the inside may tell a very different story.

“Nutritionally raw food should meet all the same nutritional requirements, but there’s a gray area,” Susan Thixton said. Thixton is the president of TruthAboutPetFood.com, a proponent of the Association for the Truth in Pet Food, a “petsumer” watchdog association. “With pet foods you’ll see some that say ‘complete diet’ and some don’t. The problem with raw foods, is that because they are in a raw form, the way that nutrients are absorbed in the body are different than in kibbles food.”

But nutrient absorption may be the least of a pet parent’s problems.

Although many pet parents opt for a raw food diet, it can be harmful to their pets, even in minor circumstances. Larry Fleming, a doctor of veterinary medicine has been practicing for 26 years. As a vet at Marina Bay Animal Hospital, he’s seen his fair share of food-related illnesses.

“With the advent of new raw pet foods available we see a bit more vomiting and diarrhea issues,” Dr. Fleming said, “but these would be the same as eating people food, where the chances of spoilage and bacterial contamination become more likely.”

No matter the potential harm, Thixton believes it’s up to the pet parent to provide a safe, nutritious meal as they see fit.

“The purpose [of the association] is not to tell anyone what one style of feeding is better than another,” she said. “There’s no 100 percent fit with all pets. I want pet parents to be educated and then everybody can make better and informed decisions.”

Thixton, who owns two dogs and three cats, feeds her pets a “lightly cooked” diet—cooking the poultry, fish or meat just below the recommended guidelines to enhance the nutrient content.

No matter the debate on raw vs. lightly cooked, the truth is—be it dry kibble, raw food or lightly cooked—there’s still a risk of coming in contact with a foodborne illness.

In the news, people always hear about potential salmonella outbreaks, the subsequent food recall, and the harm it can cause them. It’s rare to hear about a pet food-related salmonella outbreak and recall. In reality, salmonella (and other harmful bacterial contamination) in pet foods and treats can cause serious infections in dogs and cats, just like it can in people. Even more so, it can potentially be transferred to people ingesting or handling the contaminated products.

“That’s always a risk, even with us, with every bite of food we take,” Thixton said. “The higher quality ingredients, like free-range animals, scientifically have been proven to be safer. There’s always a risk with food but I feel much more confidant when I purchase the ingredients and I know what’s exactly in there.”

Pets with salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea, fever and vomiting. They may also experience a decrease in appetite and abdominal pain. (For more symptoms of poisoning, visit the Serious Threat to Pets: Household Items page.) Even if your is feeling fine, they can still be infected and become carriers and infect other animals and humans. So it’s always important to contact your vet immediately if you suspect your pet has been exposed to any infection, illness, disease or poison.

Thixton knows all about the risk. Kirby, her 8-pound Papillion, got sick after eating a well-known brand of poultry as part of his lightly-cooked diet. Kirby’s veterinarian diagnosed him with a bacterial infection that was antibiotic resistant.

“It was scary,” Thixton recalled. “I almost lost him.”

She estimated she spent $400 on tests, office visits and antibiotics for Kirby. Today, Thixton buys the highest-quality ingredients she can afford, spending approximately 20 to 50 cents more a day on their meals. “The cost difference [compared to bargain-priced meat] is very insignificant,” she said. “Where would you rather spend your money—on good food or seeing the vet later?”

But there are ways to help prevent your pet from getting sick in the first place. To reduce the likelihood of infection from contaminated pet foods and treatments, follow these safe-handling instructions outlined by the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

When buying pet food…

  • Purchase products in good condition.
  • Make sure there are no signs of damage to the packaging, i.e. dents or tears.
  • Make sure the food isn’t a part of the FDA pet food recall list.
  • For a complete list of the affected pet foods for dogs and cats, visit the Pet Food Recall List page.

When preparing pet food…

  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with hot water and soap before AND after handling pet food and treats.
  • Wash pet food bowls, dishes and utensils with hot water and soap after each use.
  • When possible, feed your pet in areas other than the kitchen.
  • Avoid washing your pet’s food and water dishes in the kitchen sink or bathtub in order to prevent cross-contamination.
  • If there is no alternative, clean and disinfect the sink after washing pet food items. Infants should not be bathed in kitchen sinks because of the risk of cross-contamination.
  • Don’t use the pet’s bowl as a scooping utensil because you can increase the chance of contamination. ALWAYS use a clean, dedicated scoop or spoon.
  • Dispose of old or spoiled products properly—securely tied in a plastic bag and placed in a covered trash can.

When feeding pet food…

  • Avoid feeding your pet in the kitchen to prevent cross-contamination of food germs commonly found in the kitchen.
  • Wash your hands immediately after feeding your pet.

When storing pet food…

  • Put left over wet food in the fridge immediately. Refrigerators should be set at 40º F.
  • Dry kibble should be stored in a cool, dry place. Always store it under 80º F.
  • Store dry kibble in its original bag inside a clean, dedicated plastic container with a lid. Make sure you keep the top of the bag folded closed.
  • Keep pets/kids away from storage and prep areas.
  • Keep pets/kids away from the trash.

If you do decide to put your pet on a raw food diet, the National Research Council has developed a set of nutritional guidelines for cats and dogs. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses this information to regulate and ensure the safety of pet foods, according to the National Research Council. Both reports highlight the recommended daily requirements for proteins, amino acids, carbohydrates, fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. The complete report, Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats, can be purchased by dialing 1-800-624-6242 or visiting http://www.nap.edu.

The steps to protecting your pet are easy—it just takes a little a repetition. But if you do suspect your pet has been exposed to a foodborne illness it’s important to contact your vet immediately. For more information on dealing with a pet emergency, visit the pet First Aid 101 page.