Protect Your Pet (and Yourself) From Contaminated Food

One way to avoid contamination is to thoroughly clean your pet’s food and water bowls with hot soapy water and dry them before refilling them every day.

Did you know? Families with young children should not feed their pets in the kitchen.
Did you know? Families with young children should not feed their pets in the kitchen. By: three_if_by_bike

We remember being told to keep raw meat away from fresh food, wash our hands after handling and many more precautions to take to minimize illness, but did you ever think contamination was hiding in your dog or cat food?

It’s true; you can get sick after handling tainted pet food — and it has happened recently:

  • 49 people fell ill from Salmonella infantis during the 2012 Diamond Pet Foods recall.
  • About 80 people were sickened from 2006 to 2008 by Salmonella enterica during a Mars Petcare Inc. recall.

It seems that pet food recalls occur regularly these days, with salmonella usually being the culprit. In 2014 so far, there has been a recall every month except March.

With so much on the line, it’s important to protect both yourself and your pet from potential contamination.

Types of Contamination

1. Salmonella

This is the bacteria most responsible for food-borne illnesses.

There are many types of this bacteria that typically cause food poisoning. People most susceptible are young children and infants, elderly, and people with suppressed immune systems.

Symptoms in people can include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Cramping
  • Fever
  • Headaches

Symptoms of salmonella in pets can include:

  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Constant diarrhea
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dehydration
  • Drinking water excessively
  • Lethargy (sluggishness or lack of energy)

2. Listeria

Listeria monocytogenes is another type of bacteria in contaminated food that causes infection. Listeria caused an outbreak in 2011 and puts pregnant women at significant risk because of the possibility of miscarriage or transfer of infection to the fetus. Newborns, the elderly and people with suppressed immune systems are also at risk.

Symptoms in humans include fever and muscle aches and can sometimes include diarrhea or other complications in the intestinal tract. Symptoms in dogs include septicemia, sudden death, uterine infections and abortions.

3. Mold and Fungus

This contamination does not require contact with the pet’s food. You can disinfect mold found in the home, while other types naturally occur in the environment. Pneumonia in pets can also be caused by fungi in the environment and is not always the result of bacteria.

Symptoms include skin and respiratory infections, coughing, loss of appetite, lethargy and difficulty breathing. If you have any type of mold in your home and your pet is having a veterinary procedure done, tell the veterinarian that your pet might have been exposed to mold. This is especially important if your pet will be given anesthesia.

How Contamination Travels

The bacteria mentioned are most commonly associated with food contamination but can spread between humans and animals.

Touching feces, food, saliva or other areas of discharge (cleaning eye ducts, for example) and surfaces that have come in contact with an infected pet or person provides various ways for bacteria to travel.

Pet food that has been contaminated most likely originates from an infected worker, a tainted additive applied after the cooking process in manufacturing the dog food, or equipment used to package the product. Mold and fungi can also form in a dog food bag that gets wet (which should be discarded).

Some ways of cross-contamination might be things you don’t even think about. Someone asked me why people get sick. “Are they eating the dog food?” this person asked. Of course not, but the pet caretakers come into contact with the tainted food, perhaps without realizing it. Infected pets may show no signs of illness.

Recently, I watched a friend put dog food in her dog’s bowl, and a stray piece missed the dish. She picked it up with her fingers and tossed it in the dish. Her floor is clean, she claimed, so no problem, right? Wrong. Practice safe handling procedures.

Why Isn’t Contamination Caught Sooner?

Most testing of suspected contaminated materials occurs in a laboratory and can take up to 24 hours to complete.

Other forms of testing are being investigated, such as an application that uses light to detect the signature pattern created by bacteria in food and can be completed in 30 minutes.

I Have Contaminated Food — What Now?

First, check to see if you, your pet or anyone in your household is showing symptoms of illness. If so, get to the doctor or take your pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

If you have confirmed that your pet food has been involved in a recall, follow these steps:

  • Isolate and seal the food in an airtight container. Recall notices advise people to completely dispose of the product, but I would keep the packaging and a small sample in case it is needed later for identification or further testing. There is a risk associated with keeping the contaminated material, so if you want to err on the side of caution, take a photograph of the packing and UPC code before destroying or disposing of the product. Previous outbreaks that have caused severe illness or death have ended up in litigation. We hope for your sake this does not happen, but if it does you may need to prove the product was in your home.
  • Empty all pet dishes and wash them thoroughly with hot soapy water.
  • Clean all kitchen surfaces, items and floors with hot soapy water. Do the same for any containers or areas the pet food was stored in or came into contact with.
  • Inform everyone in the household that a contaminated item has been found and that hand-washing with warm water and soap is needed for handling any of the pet’s items, food or toys. Wash your hands before and after using the restroom or handling food.
  • Seal the food before transporting it, if you return the item to the store for a refund. You can cut the identifying label and place it on the outside of the package, but cover it completely with strong tape and wash your hands afterward.
  • Monitor people and pets for signs of illness.

Avoiding Contamination in the Future

There are many ways bacteria can affect your pet and your home.

Don’t worry, I won’t tell you to stop petting your dog or to quarantine her, but remember to wash your hands after playing with an animal who has been outside. Use extra care when picking up feces and wash your hands immediately after disposal.

Keep these other pet food safety tips in mind:

  • Thoroughly clean your dog or cat’s food and water bowls with hot soapy water before you refill them every day. Rinse well and dry before adding food and water.
  • Keep your pet’s food out of the kitchen and in an airtight, sealed container. Don’t feed your pet in the kitchen if you can avoid it; this is especially important for households with young children. The CDC warns that children younger than 2 have 4 times the risk of infection when the family pet is fed in the kitchen. Make sure your children understand the need for hand-washing — even after giving treats — to minimize illness.
  • Check the food’s expiration dates and stay updated on recall information. Throw out any food or food containers or bags that might have gotten wet or come into contact with moisture. Do not mix newly purchased food with old food; instead, use up or throw out the old food and clean the container.
  • Finally, if your dog is overweight or your cat is overweight, a diet is in order. Overweight/obesity has been linked to decreased resistance to salmonella.

For a quick video overview of salmonella dangers in dog food, watch this:

YouTube player

Additional Resources