Pets and food poisoning: It’s not just humans

Food poisoning isn’t just for humans; it can also pose a risk for our four-legged friends.

We know that Salmonella and Listeria monocytogens are food poisoning problems that can make humans ill, but did you know that they can also pose a risk for our four-legged friends? “Raw pet food consists primarily of meat, bones and organs that have not been cooked and are more likely than cooked food to contain organisms that can make your dog or cat sick,” says William J. Burkholder, DVM, PhD, Veterinary Medical Officer in the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Division of Animal Feeds. The FDA states that raw food can make animals sick, as well as humans if it isn’t handled properly.

The agency recommends cooking of raw meat and poultry to kill harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria monocytogens before you give the food to your pet. As always, when working with food, follow FDA’s instructions on how to handle it safely.

Salmonella bacteria are usually found in foods that are raw or undercooked; like meat, poultry, eggs and egg products. Salmonella can also contaminate raw or unpasteurized milk and dairy products, it can also be found in raw fruits and vegetables.

Symptoms of salmonellosis in animals include:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea (which may be bloody)
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Decreased activity level

Listeria bacteria may usually be found in meats that are uncooked, vegetables and unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses. Listeria is also able to survive in cold temperatures, meaning it can grow and spread in a refrigerator. These germs not only multiply at the cool temperature, they could contaminate a refrigerator and spread to other foods, increasing the likelihood that someone in your family could be exposed to Listeria and become ill.

Symptoms of Listeriosis in animals include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Neurological disease can happen in a small percentage of cases

Consumers run the risk of getting sick themselves if they handle contaminated pet foods and accidently transfer the bacteria to their mouths. Michigan State University Extension recommends pet owners pay close attention to good hygiene practices. This includes washing hands and anything else that comes into contact with the food product, with hot soapy water for at least 20 seconds. Take into consideration, your work area, storage containers, refrigeration space, cutting boards etc. Make it a habit to wash everything down at each feeding.

It should also be noted that your animal may not become sick, but could be carriers of Salmonella, transferring the harmful bacteria to their surroundings. According to Dr. Burkholder, “Once Salmonella gets established in the pet’s gastrointestinal tract, the animal can shed the bacteria when it has a bowel movement, and the contamination will continue to spread.”

Symptoms associated with salmonellosis in humans, can begin within 12 hours to three days after exposure to the bacteria and can last four to seven days without treatment. Everyone is at risk for contacting salmonellosis from contaminated foods, but young children under age 5, elderly adults, those with weak immune systems and pregnant women are at an increased risk. Symptoms in humans include: Fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea (which may be bloody), stomach pain and more rarely; entry of Salmonella into the bloodstream from intestines, followed by spreading to joints, arteries, heart, soft tissues and other areas of the body.

Symptoms associated with listeriosis in humans may show up 11 to 70 days after exposure to the bacteria and can last up to a few weeks. Listeriosis occurs almost exclusively in pregnant women and their fetuses, newborns, the elderly and those with weak immune systems. Listeria can infect multiple locations in the body from the brain, to membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord to the gastrointestinal tract, to the bloodstream. It is possible to treat Listeriosis with antibiotics, but it can also cause life-threatening infections in the very young and unborn.

The FDA states that feeding raw foods to pets increases the risk of Salmonella and Listeria to both the pet and the people around the pet. If the food products are not handled carefully there is opportunity for foodborne illness to happen. Learning the risk to your pet will make you an informed pet owner and avoid some of the pitfalls that could make your pet ill.

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