The well-intentioned (and often expensive) act of feeding your pets raw meat may actually be putting everyone’s health at risk, according to research from veterinary scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
The team found a troubling prevalence of harmful bacteria and parasites in eight major brands of frozen raw meat-based diet (RMBDs) products for cats and dogs after performing microbiological analysis on 35 samples. To reduce the possibility that storage location impacted the results, the RMBD products were purchased from shops in 14 different areas around Utrecht. The findings are published in the journal Veterinary Record.
Varying species of Escherichia coli bacteria were present in 86 percent of samples, and 80 percent contained a type known to be resistant to several antibiotic drugs commonly given to animals and humans. Moreover, eight products from three different brands contained a strain called E. coli O157:H7, a dangerous pathogen that often causes outbreaks of food-borne illnesses in humans. The bacterium produces a powerful toxin that can cause hemorrhagic colitis (meaning hellacious, bloody diarrhea) and may even lead to kidney failure in children and the elderly.
Across all 35 samples, the total content of all E. coli bacteria, measured in clumps of cells called colony-forming units, failed to meet the hygiene threshold required for a food product to be labeled as "acceptable for human consumption". Fortunately for your furry companions, O157:H7 rarely makes animals sick, their bodies simply become short-term carriers of the bacteria until it is excreted in their poop. And although you are unlikely to eat your pet’s dinner, the authors note in their paper that very low doses of E. coli O157:H7 (perhaps as little as one bacterial colony) can cause disease in humans. This means that pet owners may be at risk of contracting a serious infection indirectly.
“This can be through direct contact with the food; through contact with a contaminated pet, such as sharing the same bed and allowing licking of the face and hands; through contact with household surfaces; or by ingesting cross-contaminated human food,” the paper states. “Cross-contamination may occur after preparing RMBDs or cleaning infected food bowls on the kitchen sink.”
The frozen meals also contained Listeria (43 percent of samples) and Salmonella species (20 percent), two big names in human food poisoning.
While Listeria is often benign in cats and dogs, Salmonella poisoning can cause serious disease with symptoms similar to those experienced by people. Just like E. coli, these microbes can get passed to you simply from handling the products or cleaning up after your pet.