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If You Feed Your Pet in the Kitchen, Please Read This Now

Salmonella in Pet foodProcter & Gamble recently pulled their Iams Proactive Health Indoor Weight & Hairball Care dry cat food formula from all stores in Colorado to address salmonella concerns.

It seems, however, that the contamination may be wider spread. According to Veterinary Practice News:

“Today [9/1/2010], P&G said the affected product was sold through a single retailer in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Wisconsin and Wyoming. The retailer's name was not released.”

P&G estimates fewer than 60 bags of the potentially tainted dry cat food were sold, and as of this writing, no illnesses have been reported.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

If you own a companion animal and feed him store-bought pet food, chances are you’re aware of the many pet food recalls in recent years. Both animals and humans have been made sick by tainted pet foods.

There was the massive 2007 recall for pet food containing melamine. Melamine is a toxic chemical used in plastics, cleaning agents, laminates, fertilizer and other products. It was found in combination with cyanuric acid in the wheat gluten in certain pet foods, and traced to ingredients imported to the U.S. from China.

The combination of melamine and cyanuric acid is known to cause renal failure in pets, and many dogs and cats became severely ill, some fatally, after eating contaminated food. Well-known names like Iams, Eukanuba, Purina and Science Diet were some of the over 40 brands involved in the melamine recall.

Most major pet food brands and manufacturers have recalled products known or suspected to be contaminated, in particular with the salmonella bacteria.

In 2008, following massive recalls for salmonella contamination, major pet food manufacturer Mars Petcare US was forced to close its doors. The CDC traced the salmonella to the flavoring room of the manufacturing plant where dry pet food was sprayed with flavor enhancers prior to packaging.

For a complete list of recalled pet foods by product name, visit As you scan the list, note that even pet food brands considered very high quality are not exempt from contamination.

Salmonella Symptoms and Transmission

Signs and symptoms of a salmonella infection in your dog or cat can include:

  • Diarrhea, sometimes bloody
  • Vomiting
  • Fever
  • Lethargy
  • Loss of appetite
  • Abdominal pain

Salmonella is the most common food borne bacteria among humans. Depending on the reporting agency, it’s estimated anywhere from 1.5 to 4 million people in the U.S. contract salmonella each year, and about 1,000 die.

The vast majority of human infection is from sources other than pets or pet food, however, the bacteria can be transmitted from pet food to people in a number of ways.

Your pet can shed the bacteria in his feces up to 12 weeks after coming in contact with salmonella – even if he never appears sick.

Children have contracted the infection by handling pet food and then putting their hands or the food itself in their mouths.

Families that feed their pets in the kitchen seem to be at the most risk, especially if there are very young children (under age two) in the home. Investigators of pet food-related salmonella outbreaks have surmised that salmonella bacteria multiply in dirty pet food bowls, increasing the likelihood of transmission.

Many of the symptoms of salmonella infection in humans are similar to those in pets and can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea, blood in the stool
  • Abdominal pain
  • Fever and chills
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain

In a typical case of salmonellosis, symptoms occur within 12 to 72 hours of exposure, and the illness lasts four to seven days. Most people recover without treatment, but for some, the diarrhea is so severe hospitalization is required. In these patients, the infection can spread to the blood stream and on to other parts of the body. Infants, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are more likely to become seriously ill with a salmonella infection.

Tracking Contamination to its Source

Interestingly, it doesn’t appear the actual food ingredients were the source of salmonella in recent recalls, but an additive.

Before packaging for shipment, kibble is sent to a special room to be sprayed with flavor enhancers. This room is constantly moist, which is the ideal environment for growth of salmonella bacteria.

These flavor additives are designed not only to make the dry food taste more appealing to your pet, but also to addict her to a particular product. This insures that you, her doting owner, become a loyal customer of a particular brand of pet food.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA):

“Because pet foods and treats contain animal-origin products, they are at risk of contamination with Salmonella, E. coli, and other organisms. In general, these products are cooked to temperatures that will kill these organisms – however, if a contaminated additive (a flavoring, for example) is added to the food after cooking or if the food comes in contact with contaminated materials, the food will be contaminated.”

Salmonella can live on dry pet food treated with contaminated flavoring sprays for months after the product is packaged and shipped.

And as if that isn’t unsettling enough, almost every brand of pet food on the market is treated with ‘flavor enhancers.’

No matter the source of salmonella contaminated pet food, the problem has no simple solution. In fact, one expert believes the situation will become more pervasive.

"There have been problems with pet foods before," said Dr. Pascal James Imperato, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and community health at the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in New York City.

"If the food had any animal product in it, there could have been contamination, or if it was being processed in a plant where they were also processing animal product, then contamination can easily occur," he said.

"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," Imperato said. "We are likely to see many more of these problems."

How to Keep Your Whole Family Safe from Tainted Pet Food

Most food when improperly handled carries the risk of creating illness in people and animals.

But when you prepare your meals at home using fresh, wholesome foods and common sense practices for handling, cooking and storage, you exert absolute control over the situation.

You don’t have to worry that some flavoring or other additive lurking in a processed food in your cabinet or fridge has the potential to make someone you love sick.

Likewise, the only way to insure your family members aren’t exposed to contaminated pet food is to prepare your dog’s or cat’s meals yourself. This not only eliminates risk of exposure to tainted commercial pet foods, but done correctly, it will also pay huge dividends for your pet’s well-being and quality of life.

If you’re ready to take the plunge and learn how to feed your furry family member nutritious, species-appropriate meals, I’ve co-authored a how-to manual that includes recipes for both raw and cooked diets called Real Food for Healthy Dogs & Cats. The very first section of the book after the introduction addresses how to safely prepare and store the real food you purchase for your pet.

For those of you who plan to continue to feed commercial pet food in part or in whole, or are unable at this time to commit to preparing pet meals from scratch, the AVMA offers the following tips for safe handling of processed pet foods and treats:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any pet food or treats
  • Don't allow very young children, elderly people or those who are immunocompromised to handle pet food or treats
  • Keep all pet foods and treats away from your family's food.
  • Do not prepare pet foods in the same area or with the same equipment/utensils you use to prepare human foods.
  • Do not allow pets on countertops or other areas where human food is prepared.
  • During investigation of recent salmonella outbreaks, feeding pets in the kitchen was identified as a source of infection. If you can arrange to feed your pet in an area other than your kitchen, consider doing so. Alternatively, feed your pet as far away from human food preparation areas as possible.