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Nation’s Leading Dog Therapy Organization Shoots Self in Foot with Ban on Raw-Fed Pets

dog therapyIn a move that stunned its membership, affiliates and raw pet food enthusiasts across the U.S., on May 19th the Delta Society officially banned raw fed pets from their Pet Partners therapy program.

Delta Society, the nation's leading therapy dog organization, is an international effort with over 10,000 Pet Partner teams in all 50 states and several other countries.

Pet Partners trains people and their therapy pets to participate in animal visiting programs at schools, hospitals, rehab centers, nursing homes and other similar facilities.

The ban extends to any therapy pet living in a home where raw food is fed, even if the Pet Partner animal is eating cooked or processed food.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

First let me say I'm a big fan of the Delta Society Pet Partners program. The work they do to further the enormous benefits to be derived from the human-animal bond is immeasurable.

I'm also a big fan of feeding real food to pets, including raw. I believe processed pet food, especially the dry stuff, is a primary cause of many of the debilitating, life-threatening diseases companion animals suffer with these days.

That's why I'm surprised and very disheartened by Delta Society's recent decision to ban any pet fed raw food from their popular Pet Partners program.

The Delta Society has been in existence for over 30 years. Pet Partner volunteers have been feeding raw diets to their therapy animals for all those years so I question, among other things, the timing of this ban.

Is a Major Player in the Pet Food Industry Behind the Ban?

I'll let you decide.

  • On the home page of Delta Society's web site you will find the following sentiment: "Thank you to our incredible partner, the passionate pet lovers at Purina." It's a safe bet the Purina logo is prominently featured on other Delta Society marketing materials as well.
  • On the Delta Society's Board of Directors, you'll find Purina's Marketing Director.
  • In the Delta Society Medical Advisory Group, you'll find member Dr. Deborah S. Greco, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, of Nestle Purina Petcare in St. Louis, Missouri.
  • In 2008, Purina gave the Delta Society $400,000 – the largest grant ever received by the organization.
  • On the Purina One website, you'll find their marketing position on "The Dangers of a Raw Meat Diet"

So How Did the Delta Society Justify the Ban?

This is another question with no clear answer.

The Delta Society cites a number of studies in their published Raw Protein Diet Policy.

The study they seem to be hanging their hats on was published in 2008. It was a year-long study involving 40 raw-fed and 156 dry-food fed therapy dogs.

Here are the results of stool samples collected every two months for that year:

Bacteria Counts
Raw Fed Dogs (40)
Bacteria Counts
Dry Food Fed Dogs (156)
0 for Vanomycin resistant enterococci 1 for Vanomycin resistant enterococci
1 for MRSA 8 for MRSA
5 for Clostridium difficile 40 for Clostridium difficile
19 for Salmonella 12 for Salmonella
31 for E. Coli 32 for E. Coli

The Delta Society's own presentation material clearly indicates two things:

  1. The dogs fed dry food have higher counts of three of the five bacteria in the study
  2. Healthy dogs, regardless of diet, have levels of salmonella and E. coli in their systems

Let's take a look at how the vast majority of humans come in contact with the two pathogens which appear to be of primary concern to the Delta Society and their advisors. Hint: Therapy pets, no matter what they're fed, are nowhere on the list of common sources of contamination.

Salmonella and E. coli Infections in Humans

Salmonella is the most common food borne bacteria. According to the CDC, 1.4 million people in the U.S. contract salmonella each year. The FDA estimates the number at closer to 2 to 4 million, taking into account unreported cases assumed to be some other type of illness. About 1,000 people die in this country each year of salmonella infections.

  • According to an article published last year by the Journal of Food Protection, about half of all salmonella infections originate in restaurants. Infections linked to individual eating establishments are often traced to infected but asymptomatic food handlers. Fecal testing indicates significant numbers of us have salmonella in our systems and feel no ill effects.
  • The meat, poultry, eggs, milk, fruits and vegetables we eat can be contaminated with salmonella.
  • A contaminated food manufacturing facility can put the bacteria in virtually every processed food imaginable. Recent food recalls for salmonella have involved nuts, chocolate bars, peppers grown in Mexico, and peanut butter.
  • Reptile and amphibian pets are well-known to carry salmonella.
  • In 2006, 79 people contracted salmonella from handling commercial pet food. Mars Petcare recalled over 20,000 tons of contaminated dry dog and cat food crossing 105 different brands. Recent salmonella contaminations have also resulted in the recall of peanut butter-based dog treats, beef treats, cow hooves and pig ears.

Additional human cases of salmonella poisoning were tracked to dry pet foods in 2008. In response, Dr. Pascal James Imperato of the graduate program in public health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center had this to say:

"There is greater industrialization of the production of food products, both for humans and animals, and these are complex processing systems. Therefore, there is greater opportunity for contamination. We are likely to see many more of these problems in the future."

Dr. Imperato recommends the following steps to avoid becoming infected by dry pet foods:

  • Wash pet food bowls regularly to prevent growth of bacteria
  • Wash hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds after handling dry pet foods, including pet treats
  • Avoid contact between dry pet foods and human food as well as food prep areas and equipment
  • Keep infants and young children away from pet feeding areas and don't allow them to touch or ingest pet food

The majority of Escherichia coli bacteria infections, or E. coli, derives from contaminated meat, dairy and water products, but dangerous strains of the bacteria have turned up in fruits, veggies, nuts and processed foods.

Maybe you recall the 2006 E. coli infections traced to packaged fresh spinach. That outbreak put over 100 people in the hospital and caused a handful of deaths.

Just this year, the Consumers Union produced a report addressing ongoing issues with E. coli-contaminated bagged salads.

Why Isn't the Delta Society Banning Dry Food Fed Pets Too?

Interestingly, the folks at Delta Society don't seemed concerned about either Clostridium difficile bacteria or MRSA, since there was more incidence of both in the dry food fed dogs than the raw fed dogs.

C. difficile or C. diff, is a common infection among the elderly in health care facilities and can result in life-threatening inflammation of the colon. C. diff infections typically follow a course of antibiotics. According to the Mayo Clinic, in recent years this particular bacterial infection has been growing in frequency, severity and resistance to treatment.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a deadly bacteria and public health threat that is on the rise in both humans and companion animals. The more common MRSA strain is usually transmitted in hospitals, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities.

The fact is both C. diff and MRSA are significant problems in the very health care settings where therapy pets visit elderly and ill patients and residents.

Using the same logic Delta Society used to ban raw fed pets from their Pet Partners program – fear of salmonella and E. coli contamination -- shouldn't all pets eating dry food diets be banned for their higher C. diff and E. coli counts?

A Few More Raw Snacks to Chew On

There certainly doesn't seem to be a lot of science or even common sense behind Delta Society's decision to ban raw fed pets from their animal visiting programs.

How can such a sweeping ban be made based on a handful of bacterial counts than can be interpreted a number of different ways? Is there any empirical evidence therapy pets are making people sick? Where are these cases cited?

So what's really going on? You'll have to draw your own conclusions, but here are a few additional thoughts to consider …

  • In the big scheme of things, relatively few pet owners feed raw. But from my experience, many people who are committed therapy dog partners are among that small group of raw feeders. It just seems to go with the territory.
  • And therapy dog partners are typically highly knowledgeable resources that network with -- and influence -- other pet owners. The raw and home cooked pet food movement is growing, primarily through networking and word-of-mouth, which presents a threat, however small, to the pet food industry.
  • Recent widespread pet food recalls have certainly rattled the nerves of pet food manufacturers. And if the industry is truly convinced it offers nutritionally sound, species-appropriate pet food, why are we seeing a move toward grain-free, high protein and moisture formulas from these companies?
  • And finally, let's be honest -- there are inherent risks involved in hanging out with animals that lick their backsides, eat feces, scoop up dead animals in their mouths, and raid garbage cans. These are the activities of ALL dogs, not just dogs fed certain kinds of food.

I fear the Delta Society may have put their entire Pet Partners program on the chopping block by shining a white hot light on the bacteria that always has and always will be onboard our companion animals -- those that eat as nature intended them to, and those that eat the processed stuff.

Alternative Pet Therapy Organizations

For those of you who would like to learn about alternatives to Delta Society's Pet Partners program, here's a partial list:

As of this writing, none of these organizations have banned participation by raw-fed pets.

+ Sources and References