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We’ve all probably seen our dogs and cats eat some dubious stuff. While it may look like they’ve got iron stomachs, our pets can easily contract many of the same foodborne illnesses that we can. Like any other type of food, your pet’s meals can become contaminated if they are improperly prepared, stored, or handled. For pets and owners alike, salmonella is among the most well-known contaminants.
Salmonella is a bacteria that was first discovered more than a century ago by veterinarian Daniel E. Salmon. It can live in the intestines of animals — including humans — and typically causes an illness called salmonellosis. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that other types of the bacteria can cause enteric, typhoid, and paratyphoid fevers.
Humans and animals most often contract salmonellosis by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with feces. The disease is most often transmitted through un- or undercooked meats, poultry, eggs, and dairy. Touching animals, animal feces, or animal habitats without proper hand washing can also spread infection. Most infections lead to symptoms within six hours to six days of exposure. On occasion, they can take several weeks to emerge.
Signs of Salmonella
For humans with salmonellosis, symptoms typically include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Stomach pain
In rare instances, infections can reach the bloodstream and lead to more severe illnesses like arterial infections, endocarditis, and arthritis. Salmonella is considered most dangerous to children, seniors, and individuals with underlying conditions and compromised immune systems.
- Loss of energy
- Loss of appetite
Infections are uncommon in older dogs and cats unless they are also suffering from another condition. Puppies and kittens are both more likely to become infected and more likely to recover quickly than older animals. Whatever their age, animals (including cattle, horses, chickens, and reptiles) can carry the bacteria in their bodies and infect others without showing symptoms.
While most healthy people and animals will recover from salmonella without antibiotics, contracting the illness is still decidedly unpleasant. Pet owners can prevent infection — in themselves and their pets — by making careful selections at the store as well as correctly preparing and storing foods.
Buying Food Safely
- Carefully examine bags and cans for any signs of damage. These could include “dents, tears, and discoloration.”
- Make note of expiration and “best by” dates.
Preparing Food Safely
- Wash hands thoroughly both before and after handling your pets or their food. Use hot, soapy water and wash for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean food bowls and other serving utensils with hot, soapy water after each use.
- Don’t use your pet’s bowl to scoop their food. Instead, use another clean utensil.
- Quickly dispose of expired food.
Storing Food Safely
- Tightly cover refrigerated food containers.
- Refrigerate or dispose of unused canned and pouched foods.
- Store dry food in a cool, dry place.
Though opinions on raw pet food vary, the FDA does not recommend them. “Raw pet food,” the association writes, “is more likely than processed pet food to contain harmful bacteria like Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes.” They acknowledge that many pet parents prefer to feed their dogs and cats raw food, but remind these individuals to stay mindful of potential risk factors.
A 2017 study found that fewer than 1% of cats and just 2.5% of dogs tested positive for salmonella. Per the FDA, this study suggests that infection rates are declining. They note, however, that the raw food trend could contribute to rising numbers in the future. More than 1.35 million humans are infected annually.
Contact your veterinarian if you believe your pet has ingested contaminated food.
Past Product Recalls
Salmonella infections are uncommon in pets, but that doesn’t mean they never happen. The last decade-plus has seen the FDA recall dozens of products for salmonella contamination. Most often, these were preventative measures rather than responses to widespread illness.
- Quest – Beef Cat Food
- Top Dog Best Bully Sticks – Pig Ear Pet Treats
- Berkley & Jensen – Pig Ears
- Chef Toby – Pig Ears
- Lennox – Pig Ears
- Texas Tripe – Raw Frozen Pet Food
Occasionally, recalls are related to cross-contamination between pet and human foods. That was the case in 2009 when the Peanut Corporation of America’s Blakely, Georgia facility experienced potential contamination. A number of pet products contained, or may have contained, peanut butter and peanut paste from the facility.
Over a short period of time, several dozen brands were withdrawn from store shelves. These included:
- Avanza Supermarket – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Econofoods – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Family Fresh Market – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Family Thrift Center – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Food Bonanza – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Happy Tails – Multi-Flavored Dog Biscuits
- Pick ‘N Save – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Prairie Market – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
- Shoppers Value – Multi-Flavored Dog Biscuits
- SunMart Foods – Puppy Chow Snack Mix
While this was an exceptional case, it provides a helpful lesson in the widespread effects of contamination. Take care to research all foods and treats carefully before serving them to your pet. Keep in mind, too, that recalls affecting your food might also affect your pet’s favorite brands.