Are Raw Diets Safe?
Canines and felines are not humans. They have a disparate digestive tract and process. For example, we can eat all the onion we want without harm, but some dogs can get anaemic from a single, small portion of them. We can eat many slabs of chocolate and merely get fat or nauseous, while dogs can die from even a lesser amount. We can get extremely sick from raw meat, while our pets thrive on it as their natural diet. Again, they are not human.
Your fur kids have a much shorter digestive system than we do, which means that foods are processed quickly - before harmful bacteria have a chance to multiply and cause problems. Also, canines and felines have a high level of acidity in their digestive systems. This high acidity, which allows them to process the nutrients in raw meats and bones more quickly, is also hostile to bacteria. We’ve all seen dogs eat true garbage (rotten foods, decaying squirrel carcasses, etc.) without any ill effects. Nature did not evolve canines to eat a diet that would kill them. We aren’t suggesting you feed spoiled, contaminated foods at all. A raw food diet consists of good quality, meats and bones - from sources that offer top quality meat, poultry, organs and vegetables that have been inspected and properly handed.
For the purpose of this discussion, it serves no purpose to argue whether the correct canine classification should be "carnivore" or "omnivore". The important point here is that you as the pet parent and guardian fully understand that there is a huge difference between the way your fur kid is "constructed", compared to the way a human is. Those differences call for a complete adjustment of what you should think is right for your four legged kids. If something is right for you or for another human, it might actually be very, very wrong for your fur kids ... and similarly, if something is not good for you, it could be a highly beneficial and healthy thing for your fur kids!
However, as long as common sense prevails, raw feeding is safe.
What about bacteria in raw foods?
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. There are also much research focused on this topic as part of the anti-raw debate.
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. Unfortunately, this “myth” is made possible by our society's pathological fear of bacteria. 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 under-cooked or raw chicken can give us humans Salmonella poisoning, and many apply this fact directly to their fur kids 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 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.
(Source AVMA Policy)
What then, is the truth?
In a US study in 2013, it was found that 97% of all tested chicken breasts from national retailers contained potentially harmful bacteria: [ref] Escherichia coli (E. coli) (65% of samples), Campylobacter (43%), Klebsiella (14%), Salmonella (11%) and Staphylococcus aureus (9%) – to name but a few [ref]. During 2015, in the UK, over 70% of a supermarket’s chickens were found to contain Campylobacter [ref]. Sounds serious, right?
Not necessarily so! Firstly, it must be stressed that not all bacteria are 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 Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) can live on our skin without any issue (yes, you have bacteria that live on your skin ...). They are not necessarily indicative of poor quality meat or bad hygiene, but can occur everywhere.
To rephrase, of the millions of bacteria on this earth [ref], it is estimated that less than 1% are harmful [ref] (require Adobe pdf reader). Imagine trying to win the War of the Worlds without the help from our little friends! Media and society as a whole have played up bacteria, painting it as an evil nemesis that must be stomped out with disinfectants, antibacterial everything, and unnecessary vaccination. This has resulted in the emergence of super-bacteria and "super-viruses", no thanks to the improper use of antibiotics and the plethora of antibacterial soaps and products. You only need to read up on the current antibiotic resistance trends growing across the globe, including South Africa, to understand the impact that our pathological fear of bacteria. Developmental biologists have learned that bacterial exposure is absolutely necessary for the development of a healthy immune system, among other things. Humans and dogs have evolved in the presence of bacteria, and insisting on a sterile environment has created more damage than good.
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:
- most 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 defences 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 defences 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 - safe handling of food by pet parents begins in the store and continues in the home.
- humans are the only animals to cook their foods. Mother Nature designed our pets to survive perfectly well on uncooked meats, and until the day that our Boston’s' get the fire ready for a braai on a Friday afternoon, we will continue to feed them a raw diet.
- 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.
- Veterinarians do not take into account, or sometimes forget, that salmonella occurs naturally in the digestive tracts of many dogs, regardless of their diet. Even so, these dogs do not become sick.
- 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 are harmlessly excreted usually within a day of having been ingested. The fact that a dog’s poo may contain this bacterium 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. As for dogs shedding bacteria in their faeces: do not eat dog poo and wash your hands after feeding your dogs or cleaning up after them. The fact remains, however, that all dog poo can harbour dangerous bacteria – it has been estimated that a single gram of dog waste can contain 23 million faecal coliform bacteria, which are known to cause cramps, diarrhoea, 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 ...
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. Remember, you are sharing your life with an animal that licks its own rear and eats cat poop before licking your face.
People proclaiming this "serious health risk" claim seem to think people are incapable of a) properly feeding their dogs and b) cleaning up after themselves. Use good hygiene practices: clean counter tops and utensils used to feed dogs, and wash your hands. Make sure you use stainless steel or glass bowls to feed your fur kids on raw diets. Feed the dog outside or inside on a towel or plastic-type tablecloth you can reuse and wash when needed if you really that concerned. By training the dog to eat in one place, you will not have to "worry" about him tracking a mess or bacteria through the house. If you are still concerned about bacteria, clean your dog's paws, mouth, etc. with a mild, safe antimicrobial like diluted white vinegar. Honestly, as long as proper hygiene is observed, the risks of bacteria are minimised to "a non-issue".
Source (AVMA Policy)
A study published by the American Academy of Paediatrics [ref] 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 [ref]. The Salmonella was found in the flavourings sprayed on to the kibble, and resulted in the complete closure of the processing factory in question.
What these anti-raw people institutions neglect to tell you, is that bacteria and other microorganisms CAN contaminate PROCESSED pet foods and can be responsible for digestive tract diseases, not just in raw foods. The bacteria found consist of microorganisms associated with food ingredients, acquired during handling and processing, surviving any preservation treatment, and contaminating food in storage. Most pet foods are exposed to many potential sources of microorganisms, not just raw foods. They include sources of contamination during production, harvest, handling, processing, storage, distribution or preparation for consumption. Contamination can be by bacteria in soil, water, air, living plants, feed or fertilizer, animals, human beings, sewage, processing equipment, ingredients and packaging materials. You only need to do a Google search on kibble products being recalled in the US, Europe, China and Australia, to understand that contamination is possible whether raw, processed or cooked.
As stated before, safe handling of food by pet parents begins in the store and continues in the home (see the next section as well). The important practices of handling include purchasing, storing, pre-preparation, cooking, serving, and handling leftovers. Safe handling prevents or minimizes hazards that consist of biological (bacteria), chemical (cleaning agents), and physical (equipment).
Source (AVMA Policy)
Beneficial bacteria in your pet’s gut help keep bad bacteria from becoming a problem. As published by Kymythy Schultze in her book titled "Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats (Ultimate Diet)", Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria are on many surfaces that your pet often comes into contact with. Salmonella has even been found in samples of commercial pet foods and treats as discussed above. Bacteria is not a problem for a pet with a strong immune system, and a strong immune system is encouraged by eating species-appropriate raw food.
There is no evidence proving that the digestive systems of our domesticated dogs and cats are any weaker than that of their wild relatives. But there is much evidence indicating that raw meat promotes good health. And remember, not all types of bacteria are bad. Some types of bacteria are needed for healthy digestion.
If you prefer, you may add a good-quality antibacterial to your pet’s meals. One such product is citrus seed extract. Do not use it full strength. Dilute it in the water that you use to mix the meal together with, per the directions on the bottle. You may soak chunks of meat and bones in it, too. You can also use it to kill bacteria in foreign water when you travel, and with pets that have been diagnosed with a weak or compromised immune system. If your pet suffers from yeast overgrowth or infections, using a good-quality citrus seed extract should help clear it up.
There are also other natural antibacterials. Probiotics are beneficial organisms that promote a healthy intestinal environment. They are widely available at health food stores. Tests show that non-dairy probiotics such as acidophilus / bifidus can be 97 percent effective in combatting E. coli bacteria. In fact, a course of non-dairy probiotics should be given to any animal that is taking antibiotics or has taken them in the past year.
Alfalfa has also proven effective against gram-negative bacteria (such as salmonella). Chamomile, garlic, kelp, ginger, and parsley are also antibacterial. Organic, raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar kills some bacteria and contains many enzymes. You may give small dogs and cats 1 to 2 teaspoons, and larger pets 1 to 2 tablespoons, in their food. It is quite tart, so start with a small amount and gradually work up.
Top 10 Food borne Pathogens (Not specific to raw feeding)
The following are a list of the top 10 "least wanted" food borne pathogens as published by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency [ref]. Simple food handling and safety practices can prevent all of these pathogens from becoming a problem. Unfortunately, few consumers are well-educated on these pathogens and the practices they should employ when handling their families' and their pet's food.
This pathogen can cause persistent fever, muscle aches, constipation and vomiting. It is one of the most dangerous of food borne pathogens.
Although rarely life-threatening, this pathogen is the leading cause of human gastroenteritis. It is also known to cause Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which usually forms 2 - 3 weeks after initial infection.
A bacterium that produces neurotoxins, this pathogen is most commonly associated with botulism. Symptoms include nausea, fatigue, blurred vision and descending paralysis.
This pathogen is known to cause “traveler’s diarrhea”, as it is most commonly acquired while traveling. It has previously been linked to imported raspberries, and prior to 1990 was virtually unknown.
E. Coli 0157:H7
This enterohemorrhagic strain of E. coli can occasionally lead to kidney failure, and is particularly dangerous to young children and the elderly.
Hepatitis A virus is a common pathogen, most commonly contracted due to unclean water or infected meat. The effects are inflammation and irritation of the liver, and immediate medical attention should be consulted.
Formerly known as Norwalk agent, the symptoms for this virus are diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. It is a leading cause of acute gastroenteritis.
This pathogen can cause illnesses like typhoid fever, paratyphoid fever and common food borne illnesses. Although not as dangerous as other pathogens, more severe illnesses can develop in certain cases.
Related to Salmonella and E. Coli, this virus is found in humans and apes. It causes dysentery when contracted, which is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, particularly the colon. Dysentery can be fatal if left untreated.
Vibrio is most commonly found in salt water, making it particularly dangerous in undercooked seafood. By releasing a toxin, it causes an abnormal release of water in the intestine, producing severe diarrhoea. Treatment is simply a matter of replenishing the body’s fluids; however in extreme cases death from dehydration is possible.
PLEASE NOTE: If you have concerns that you, a family member or a pet may have food poisoning, please consult medical professionals immediately.
Additional Articles and Videos
Have a look at Mogen Eliasen (Ph.D Chemistry) notes on Salmonella here [ref] (require Adobe PDF reader). Also have read what Dr. Ron Hines have to say about his experiences and views regarding bacteria and food safety here [ref].
- Dr. Jean Dodd, Raw Versus Cooked Foods: Perhaps the most controversial current topic in the pet world (Part I) (Tumblr),
- Dr. Jean Dodd, Raw Versus Cooked Foods: What is HPP and why does it matter? (Part II) (Tumblr)
- Dr Jean Dodds and Diana Laverdure, "Canine Nutrigenomics - The New Science of Feeding Your Dog for Optimum Health" (Amazon)
- Bacteria in the Gut: Friends and Foes and How to Alter the Balance, R. A. Rastall, J. Nutr. August 1, 2004 vol. 134 no. 8 2022S-2026S: [Ref]
- Food Safety and Raw Diets by Dr Nick Thompson (YouTube)
- Raw Pet Foods and the AVMA's (American Veterinary Medical Association) Policy: FAQ (AVMA)
- Raw Meat-Based Diets in Dogs and Cats, Veterinary Sciences 2017, 4(3), 33; doi:10.3390/vetsci4030033 (MDPI)