CTV has a consumer reports segment and a recent topic involved feeding pets “natural” diets (although no one ever defined what that really means). In the report on the CTV Consumer Alert website (it’s currently about the third story into the video if you just press play, or you can shortcut to it using the link below the main video window), a 26 year old cat is held up as a poster child for the health benefits of raw food. Making it to 26 is a noteworthy accomplishment for a cat, but it’s far from rare, and you can’t know whether the cat survived because of its diet or despite its diet. At the end of the clip, they mention he cat has kidney disease, not an uncommon problem in older cats but one that is often blamed by raw proponents on commercial foods. It’s also not a condition that I’d want to see someone try to manage with a raw diet.

Anyway, the story has the typical statements (including one from a veterinarian) about how raw and “natural” diets produce a healthier animal, stronger immune system and shinier haircoat, but without citing any proof (because there is none) and with no discussion whatsoever about the potential animal and public health impacts of raw meat feeding.

Good investigations are good. Quick reports put together with little thought or consideration of the issues are just time filler. The host, Pat Foran, said in his conclusion that “natural” pet foods have less filler so there’s less to come out the back end of the dog. Well, news reports comprised of filler produce the same kind of by-product.

If you are going to feed raw, at least take the time to research how to do it safely, both for your pet and your household. Raw feeding can be done in a nutritionally sound manner, but it takes time, effort and money. Some people are willing and able to do that, but if you’re not, don’t feed raw. Raw feeding also carries some risk of gastrointestinal disease like salmonellosis in the animal as well as exposure of people in the household to those same bugs. Certain households, particularly those with high risk individuals (e.g. elderly, infants, pregnant women, immunocompromised persons) should avoid raw feeding or only use products that have been high pressure pasteurized. There are a few commercial raw diets that are treated in this manner and these are preferable as the process should kill most relevant bacteria, reducing or eliminating the infectious disease risks to pets and people.

Like many other things in life, the key is being informed so you understand the risks and benefits, and whether recommendations made by people have any substance behind them. Too often, people make a major change like feeding raw based on a comment on a website or from another dog owner, with no clue about the issues and no effort to figure out how to do it right. That’s just asking for problems.

More information about raw diets can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

While I hate to initiate another round of emails from raw diet supporters, here are a few of the more common questions that I get about these diets and some answers:

I use frozen raw food. Doesn’t freezing kill harmful microorganisms?

  • No. Freezing is an effective way to eliminate most parasites (with an adequately low temperature and adequate time, which varies between parasites). Campylobacter also does not survive freezing well. However, other bacteria, including Salmonella, tolerate freezing quite well. Studies of previously frozen raw diets have found high rates of bacteria like Salmonella.

My dog doesn’t defecate in the hospital, so why are we paying attention to intestinal bacteria?

  • Inadvertent exposure to fecal bacteria is common. Most gastrointestinal infections in people are from ingestion of bacteria and viruses from feces (e.g. Salmonella, Clostridium difficile, norovirus). We don’t knowingly ingest feces, but we get exposed to these organisms nonetheless. Fecal bacteria can end up on pets’ haircoats, people’s hands and many surfaces in the general environment, and then wind up in the intestinal tract of a susceptible person.

Is there any way to eliminate Salmonella and other harmful bugs from raw meat?

  • Yes. Besides the obvious (cooking), there are a couple options. One is irradition, which is a safe and highly effective way to eliminate bacteria. The main problems are cost and consumer fears of irradiation (which is actually harmless). Another approach is high pressure pasteurization. This process uses high pressure (with a slight increase in temperature) to kill harmful organisms. The effectiveness of this for raw meat hasn’t been clearly determined, but it’s an option, and one company is now doing this for all of their diets.

Why don’t you just go into hospitals, ask nurses whether animals visit and compare infection rates, so you can see if there is a true health risk?

  • It would be nice if it was that easy. Firstly, asking nursing staff doesn’t give enough information. You need to know if animals visit, but also if they visited particular patients, and whether they visited before those patients developed infection. Just comparing infection rates between hospitals or wards that allow dogs to visit, and knowing the dietary status of the dogs, is useless. A proper study would require clear documentation of which animals visited which patients (something that is rarely recorded) and whether patients subsequently developed any infections that were not present before visitation (which is not easy to document), while concurrently investigating other possible sources of infection (similarly challenging). Ideally, bacteria causing human infections would be compared to those found in animals to provide stronger evidence of a link. Because the incidence of infections is relatively low, a large number of people would need to be enrolled. There are significant logistical issues, research ethics board issues, problems with the quality and availability of medical records and other things that make this very, very difficult. It needs to be done but it’s not as simple as many people think. If it was easy, it would have been done by now.

Dogs have a short and acidic intestinal tract and are not susceptible to Salmonella.

  • This statement appears thousands of times on the internet and there’s absolutely no evidence supporting it. Dogs can and do get salmonellosis. For every email I’ve had talking about how a raw diet has made a big difference in someone’s dog’s health, I get at least one email from an owner or vet whose dog got salmonellosis while eating raw meat (and sometimes people in the house also got sick). A dog that eats Salmonella can shed it in its feces. The bacterium can clearly survive passage through the intestinal tract. Most dogs that ingest Salmonella do not get sick. Some do. Sometimes their owners do as well.

Wild dogs eat raw meat. That’s what they’ve evolved to do.

  • Wild dogs also have a much, much shorter lifespan than domestic dogs. It’s obviously not all related to diet, but I don’t want my dog to have the lifespan of a “natural” dog, I want her to have the longer and healthier lifespan of a modern pet dog. Take a look at older cemeteries and see the number of headstones of very young children. Raw milk played a big role in many of those.
  • Regardless, the question isn’t about the health of dogs fed raw meat. That’s a completely separate issue. The issue is the risk that raw-fed dogs might pose to the highly compromised people that are found in healthcare facilities. People need to think about the health of those susceptible individuals when they get involved in this debate.

(click image for source)

Since my post about Delta Society and raw diets, I’ve had multiple questions or comments about the research behind it.

Here’s one question:

"Please site the research that "clearly show…" that raw-fed animals shed bacteria at a higher rate."

Here’s the answer:

Lefebvre et al, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2009

  • Study following therapy dogs over the course of a year. Diet history was recorded. Raw-fed dogs were 17 times as likely to be shedding multidrug-resistant E. coli compared to non-raw-fed dogs, and more likely to be shedding Salmonella.

Leonard et al, Zoonoses and Public Health, 2010

  • Study of healthy dogs in households. Dogs fed a commercial or homemade raw diet were greater than 5 times as likely to be shedding Salmonella than other dogs.

Lefebvre et al, Zoonoses and Public Health, 2008

  • Study investigating therapy dogs in Ontario and Alberta. Raw-fed dogs were 23 times as likely to be shedding Salmonella and 17 times as likely to be shedding multidrug resistant E. coli.

Lenz et al, Canadian Veterinary Journal, 2009

  • Campylobacter jejuni was found in the feces on 2.6% of raw-fed dogs and Salmonella was found in 14% of raw-fed dogs. Neither was found in any dogs not fed raw meat.

That’s pretty clear to me.

Delta Society has recently announced a policy prohibiting animals fed raw meat or raw animal products from participating in their Pet Partners program. This policy was established because of research indicating dogs fed raw meat are much more likely to be shedding harmful bacteria like Salmonella and drug resistant E. coli in their feces compared to dogs fed commercial or home cooked diets, and the fact that these dogs come into close and frequent contact with people that are more susceptible to infections and at increased risk having severe infections.

Not surprisingly, internet chat sites are abuzz, and there’s much condemnation and consternation from some. Some of the more vocal minority are stating that they’ll just lie and say that they’re not feeding raw.  I guess such dishonest actions would be based on a combination of ignorance and arrogance – feeding raw is your own decision, but blatantly flouting a policy that was put in place to reduce risks to those most susceptible is stupid and irresponsible.

One of the problems with peoples’ reactions is the fact that they are confusing two separate issues. One debate is whether raw feeding is more healthy or more harmful to the pet. That’s a controversial area, but this policy has nothing to do with that. This policy deals with the increased likelihood that raw-fed pets are shedding harmful bacteria. That’s been very well proven in scientific studies. Do raw-fed pets cause disease in people in hospitals? We don’t know. However, we have enough evidence to indicate there is the potential for increased risk to patients, and that added risk can be eliminated by not feeding raw meat products.

Hopefully, people will realize that this policy has been put in place for a good reason, and that it’s focused on protection of people at high risk of serious illness. It’s not a broad condemnation of raw diets, it’s just a statement that it is not considered appropriate for dogs that will have contact with high risk populations – a recommendation that’s far from new.

Details about this policy can be found here.

Disclosure: I’m a member of Delta Society’s Medical Advisory Board. However, the opinions expressed here are mine and do not necessarily reflect the views of Delta Society.

PetProductNews.com reports that Nature’s Variety, a raw pet food company, has unveiled results of a recent "research study" on their products. Whenever you see "research," especially on the web, you need to consider whether it’s really valid scientific information or a marketing ploy. This particular case certainly doesn’t seem like anything approaching real research.

Apparently the study, commissioned by Nature’s Variety, involved the feeding of six adult dogs variations of different diets over a 4.5 month period. They looked at stool quality, volume and odor, blood chemistry, quality of their skin and coat and body weight.

  • In research, we worry about sample size. You need to have enough animals to detect any real differences. With 6 dogs, 4.5 months of feeding and different diets, you don’t have much of a chance to detect a problem (or a benefit, usually). You could have a diet that kills 10% of the dogs that eat it every year and not detect it in study of that size!
  • The number of dogs and time don’t even fulfill AAFCO feeding trial requirements, so this doesn’t provide any information that would be accepted using standard requirements.

Nature’s Variety director of research stated “It’s kind of a sigh of relief.”

  • It’s pretty concerning that the head of research would be relieved that there were no obvious health problems in such a small study. If they don’t have real confidence in the quality of the food, why are they selling it? If you have confidence in your diet, you say "Of course, as expected, our diet was shown to be nutritious and safe…" not "Wow, we’re really happy no dogs died!" Research to indicate safety and nutritional value should be done before you sell, not well after.

Duclos said she expects the study to be published in a peer-reviewed journal in about one year.

  • Not likely. For one thing, from what they are releasing, it’s very weak and not defensible scientifically. For another, they’ve already released the results. It’s inappropriate for people to release results before they’ve undergone peer review, and releasing data in a press release will probably prevent any reasonable journal from even considering the study.

It’s good that Nature’s Variety is trying to do some research. It’s also good that they’re addressing Salmonella contamination following their recent recall. The fact that they are doing something progressive is an encouraging sign. However, they need to do proper research, and make sure it undergoes appropriate scrutiny, instead of using small and relatively useless studies to generate press releases.

Raw feeding has inherent risks of exposure for people and pets to potentially harmful bacteria like Salmonella. Raw feeding can probably be done safely for both the pet and people in some, but not all, situations. More information about raw meat feeding can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page. 

Click image for source.

Nature’s Variety has expanded their recall based on more concerns about Salmonella contamination of their products. In a lot of ways, this makes no sense to me since you have to assume that raw meat is contaminated with Salmonella, E. coli, Campylobacter and various other pathogens. That’s been clearly shown in studies of raw meat for humans and animals, and that’s why we cook meat intended for human consumption and emphasize good food handling practices. It’s also why there are concerns about feeding raw meat to pets, and the explanation for various studies showing pets fed raw meat have much higher rates of shedding potentially harmful bacteria like SalmonellaYou have to assume that a reasonable percentage of Nature’s Variety’s food has been contaminated with Salmonella, not that this is an uncommon and preventable event.

Because of the problem or consumer concerns, Nature’s Variety has announced that they will be treating all of their diets using high pressure pasteurization. Basically, this process uses very high pressures (with only a slight increase in temperature) to reduce bacterial levels. I can’t find any scientific literature about the effectiveness of this method on Salmonella contamination of raw meat (it’s mainly used with milk and cheese) but it should be able to greatly reduce bacterial levels in meat. That’s a good thing, as long as it works. What’s important to know, however, is whether it is really highly effective in this situation and whether all potentially harmful bacterial will be eliminated every time.

I’m concerned that if people think this food is “sterile” and it’s not, they might not take the necessary food handling precautions. If this method usually, but not always, kills all of the bad bacteria, or if it reduces levels greatly but not completely, then there could still be the risk of infection of people and pets. This information is critical. In the absence of clear scientific data, I think we need to assume that some level of contamination could still be present (although probably much less often and at a much lower level), and make sure that proper food handling practices are used.

It’s good to see this company taking measures to reduce the risks associated with raw meat feeding. Let’s hope that some objective research is made available to indicate what risks might remain.

Image source: www.defendingfoodsafety.com

A study by Erin Leonard of the University of Guelph and others, that has just been published in the journal Zoonoses and Public Health, once again points to the increased risk of Salmonella shedding associated with feeding raw diets to dogs.  The study looked at 138 dogs from 84 households in Ontario.  One-quarter of households (21/84, 25%) had at least one dog (32/138, 23.2%) that was shedding Salmonella at one time, which is considerably higher than the 1-4% of pet dogs that are typically expected to be shedding this zoonotic pathogen.  Only 4 of the 32 positive dogs had any history of diarrhea in the last month, so the vast majority of these dogs had no signs that they were shedding Salmonella.  Here were the study’s main findings:

1. Consuming a commercial or homemade raw diet, a homemade cooked diet, or raw meat and eggs, increases a pet dog’s risk of carrying Salmonella.

Raw is raw, and by now we’re hoping that people are getting the message that raw is contaminated, whether we’re talking about a commercial or homemade raw diet, or feeding any raw animal products (e.g. meat, eggs).  The fact that homemade cooked diets also made the list could be explained by the fact that in order to make such a diet, owners still need to start with the raw ingredients.  Handling and cooking raw meat and animal products for your pet should be done with the same precautions as handling and cooking raw meat for yourself or your family.  If these homemade diets were not cooked as thoroughly as they should have been, or if there was contamination of the dog’s dishes with raw product, that could explain the association with Salmonella shedding.  Although traditional commercial diets can also be contaminated with pathogens (usually after processing), the risk with these is much lower.

2. Testing multiple consecutive whole fecal samples greatly improves Salmonella recovery in dogs.

This is no great surprise either.  Dogs (and many other species) shed Salmonella intermittently, so not every fecal sample from a Salmonella-positive dog is going to yield Salmonella on culture.  The authors tested five daily fecal samples from each dog.  Based on this study, the sensitivity of testing a single fecal sample in a dog (i.e. the likelihood that a Salmonella-positive dog will test positive on one fecal sample) was only 35.5%.  That means almost two-thirds of positive dogs will be missed if they’re only tested once.  The take-home message on this point is that in order to find Salmonella in a healthy pet dog, multiple samples should be tested.

3. Having multiple dogs in a household, using probiotics and contact with livestock are important potential risk factors that need to be investigated further.

These were factors that were flagged by the authors for future investigation, because at first they seemed to be associated with Salmonella shedding in the dogs, but when the feeding of raw diets was taken into account the associations were no longer significant.  A larger study, or one using a different design, will be needed to help tease apart the potential effects of these factors from feeding practices.

The bottom line: Feeding raw is risky business.  Some people swear by the benefits of raw diets, but the objective evidence is lacking.  There is clear evidence of the risks.  In my mind, the potential up-side simply cannot outweigh the well-established down-side of feeding raw diets to pets.

Nature’s Variety has recalled chicken-based raw meat products because of Salmonella contamination. After a customer complaint about "digestive problems," they tested the food and found Salmonella, prompting the recall. (For more details about the recall, click here.)  In some ways, this doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. If you think Salmonella contamination should be an uncommon event and a problem, you should test routinely, not wait until animals get sick. If you think that Salmonella contamination of raw meat is expected (which it is), then why test or recall? Just assume that every raw meat sample is positive for Salmonella (and Campylobacter, and E. coli). Recalling raw meat for Salmonella isn’t logical. Presumably, a large percentage of the raw meat that they have sold and which they will sell in the future is contaminated, based on various studies of commercial raw meat. Handling and feeding raw meat carries an inherent risk of human and animal infections with Salmonella, Campylobacter, E. coli and other bacteria. People that feed raw meat need to understand that risk, and consider whether it’s a reasonable risk for their pets and the people in the household. I don’t think feeding raw meat is a good idea, but in some situations it’s a particularly bad idea (e.g. when there are infants, elderly persons or immunocompromised people in the household, when the pet is very old or very young, when the pet visits high risk people).

More information about raw meat feeding can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

My daughter’s kindergarten class is having a gingerbread cookie decorating event tomorrow. They’re supposed to bring a guest (in Amy’s case, me) and some items (e.g. candy sprinkles, gummies) to put on the cookies. I was surprised (but impressed) to see a statement asking people to avoid bringing items from bulk bins because of the potential for cross contamination. The concern is that bulk bin items could be contaminated with items such as nuts, which are banned from schools because of allergies.

Cross contamination can also involve bacteria, and can extend into the realm of pet treats. Salmonella contamination of rawhide treats is a problem, and rawhides and other raw pet treats have been the cause of multiple outbreaks of salmonellosis in people. Salmonella (and E. coli, and other bacteria) contamination is a concern with any raw animal-origin product, and while there have been improvements in some areas in manufacturing practices, some risk will always be present. That’s why rawhides, pigs’ ears and similar treats shouldn’t be present in households with young children, elderly individuals or people with compromised immune systems, and why good attention to hand hygiene is needed when these products are handled. Buying individually-packaged rawhides (instead of bulk bin items) is also recommended. Bulk bins may offer some cost savings, but you are at the mercy of cross-contamination and potential accumulation of Salmonella and other bacteria. If one rawhide is contaminated, it can cross-contaminate all the other rawhides in the bin. If bins are just topped up as they get low, this can lead to contamination of a large number of rawhides. There’s also the risk of exposure when you reach into the bin and grab one (and it’s unlikely that you’d wash your hands afterwards).

Hartz Mountain Corporation has voluntarily recalled one lot of its chicken-basted rawhide chews for dogs because of potential contamination with Salmonella

Rawhide treats, as the name suggests, are raw treats that  are literally made from the hide of typically cattle or pigs. The finding of Salmonella in rawhide treats is not particularly surprising, since Salmonella is commonly found in raw meat products, especially chicken.  In this case it is not known exactly how the product may have become contaminated. High rates of contamination of raw pet treats have been reported, although a recent study reported improvement in products in Canada.  This has likely occured because of action from the industry in response to outbreaks of disease in people that originated with treats. It’s important to remember that any raw animal-based product that has not been treated (e.g. irradiated) to get rid of bacteria could contain harmful pathogens like Salmonella. They are best avoided, especially if high risk individuals (e.g. very young children, elderly persons or anyone with a weakened immune system) might come in contact with the treats or the pet to which the treats are fed. If you do decide to feed your pet raw animal-derived treats, care should be taken to reduce the risks of transmitting pathogens like Salmonella, as is recommended with raw meat diets. More information about raw meat feeding and Salmonella in pets can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.