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Pet Parents Are Finally Ignoring This Advice — Are You?

raw pet food

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pet parents continue to defy the processed pet food industry and even their veterinarians as they turn in increasing numbers to fresh food diets for their dogs and cats
  • The reason so many pet owners are switching their animal companions to fresh diets is to address persistent, often debilitating health issues
  • Health concerns about raw diets are easily addressed through an understanding of how to protect yourself and your pet from potentially pathogenic bacteria
  • The same common sense practices you use when handling raw meat for the human members of your family also apply when handling raw pet food
  • The raw meat used in many commercially available raw food diets is human-grade, USDA-inspected and no different from the steak and chicken purchased for human consumption from a grocery store

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Recently, I was pleased to run across yet another pet food industry journal article about the growing popularity of raw pet food, "despite health warnings."1 I'm sure it's a source of tremendous frustration to processed pet food producers that they're having minimal success scaring pet parents away from fresh diets.

They've tried to treat the move toward raw as a passing fad "fueled by interest in ancestral, high-protein, and fresh meat diets," while ignoring the real reason most people switch from processed to fresh: their pet's health. Sadly, many veterinari­ans don't get it, either. But despite the dire warnings from the processed pet food industry and the traditional veterinary community, statistics show just how fast the raw pet food market segment is growing.

In the five years leading up to October 2017, sales more than doubled from $64 million in 2013 to $195 million in 2017. Frozen raw grew 16 percent between 2016 and 2017, and the number of retailers carrying frozen raw diets has grown to 69 percent, up from 50 percent in 2013.

The Real Reason Behind the Fresh Food Movement: Sick Pets

The downside to this trend is that healthier food is more expensive, for both you and your pet. But the extra cost of preventive medicine in the form of species-appropriate food often translates to fewer medical issues down the road. The fact is that while raw dog and cat food is more costly than processed diets, a growing number of pet parents are willing to spend more for their furry family member's food when it results in improved health and fewer veterinary visits.

The rise in the popularity of fresh food is due in large part to the growing awareness among pet guardians of the link between processed pet food and many of the diseases suffered by today's dogs and cats. In my experience, one of the biggest motivators in changing an animal's diet is a very ill dog or cat whose veterinarian has run out of ideas.

A desperate owner makes the decision to transition a sick pet to a raw diet, with positive results. It's almost as if they've fed their pet back to good health. Other pet parents, concerned about the ongoing issue of processed pet food recalls, decide to go raw.

In addition, more and more people are becoming distrustful of the science behind processed diets, and are doing their own research. They learn about the ingredients and manufacturing methods used to produce processed pet food, and ultimately decide an unprocessed raw diet is a much healthier option for their cat or dog.

What You Should Know About Raw Pet Food Health Warnings

When I attended the July 2015 AAFCO meeting, the head of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine openly told the group they would be focusing on testing raw foods in the upcoming years (i.e., let the head hunting begin).

Interestingly, their decision to target raw foods wasn't due to customer complaints or ill dogs, and it wasn't due to a massive recall or discovery of contaminants (such as pentobarbital). It was an offensive strategy to pursue this fast growing segment of the industry to try and find a problem to highlight, to cast doubt and generate fear.

Thanks to the constant hectoring about the dangers of salmonella in raw pet food (when in fact, the problem has historically been much more prevalent in processed pet food), many pet parents remain concerned about feeding raw foods specifically because raw meat can contain salmonella bacteria.

The fact is that salmonella can be found in up to 36 percent of all healthy dogs and 18 percent of healthy cats regardless of the food they consume. Many pets harbor these bacteria as a part of their normal gastrointestinal (GI) flora and naturally shed salmonella organisms in feces and saliva regardless of what food they eat.

All non-typhoid salmonella species are ubiquitously present in the environment and reside in the GI tracts of many animals, including pets. The majority of human salmonellosis cases are acquired through ingestion or handling of contaminated dry pet foods and treats — not raw meat. Here's what you need to know about salmonella:

Dry food and raw food can certainly harbor salmonella, so awareness is important.

Regardless of what food you feed your pet, animals can naturally harbor salmonella that can be a risk to humans, especially if you or a member of your family is immunocompromised.

The raw meat used in many commercially available raw food diets is human-grade, USDA-inspected and no different from the steak and chicken purchased for human consumption from a grocery store. It should be handled with the same safety precautions you use when you prepare meals for your family.

It's all the same meat. Your kitchen counters, bowls, cutting surfaces and utensils should be disinfected whether the raw meat is intended for your pet or human family members.

9 Common Sense Tips for Feeding Raw

The FDA offers the following tips to prevent infection when feeding raw:2

Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) after handling raw pet food, and after touching surfaces or objects that have come in contact with the raw food.

Thoroughly clean and disinfect all surfaces and objects that come in contact with raw pet food. First wash with hot soapy water and then follow with a disinfectant. You can also run items through the dishwasher after each use to clean and disinfect them.

Freeze raw meat and poultry products until you are ready to use them, and thaw them in your refrigerator or microwave, not on your countertop or in your sink.

Carefully handle raw and frozen meat and poultry products. Don't rinse raw meat, poultry, fish and seafood. Bacteria in the raw juices can splash and spread to other food and surfaces.

Keep raw food separate from other food.

Immediately cover and refrigerate what your pet doesn't eat, or throw the leftovers out safely.

If you're using raw ingredients to make your own cooked pet food, be sure to cook all food to a proper internal temperature as measured by a food thermometer. Thorough cooking kills Salmonella, L. monocytogenes and other harmful foodborne bacteria.

Don't kiss your pet around its mouth, and don't let your pet lick your face. This is especially important after your pet has just finished eating raw food.

Thoroughly wash your hands after touching or being licked by your pet. If your pet gives you a "kiss," be sure to also wash your face.

Bottom line, follow the same safe handling precautions regardless of what you feed your pet, and be assured that responsible raw food companies perform due diligence to control potential pathogenic bacteria in a variety of nontoxic ways, including using phage technology, fermentation and lot testing to ensure each batch of product is safe for consumption.

If You're Considering Switching Your Pet to a Raw Diet

Despite the inherent risks associated with handling raw meat, pet parents have been feeding raw diets to their dogs and cats for decades. If you're interested in feeding raw or learning more about it, there are many informative videos and articles here at Healthy Pets. A good place to start is my three-part video series on raw diets for pets:

  1. "The Feeding Mistake Linked to the Cause of Most Disease — Are You Making It?"
  2. "The Biggest Myths About Raw Food (and Why They're Mostly Nonsense)"
  3. "Common Feeding Mistakes That Can Harm Your Pet"