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The raw pet food diet debate

The concern for food safety is becoming greater and greater and includes the diets of our four-legged friends in the family unit. With the recent issues involving melamine and Salmonella contamination in commercial pet foods, many owners are looking to alternative diets. Some breeders recommend “raw diets,” claiming they are more nutritious than dry food and carry a wealth of benefits. These diets consist of raw food, including vegetables, grains, meat and bones. These diets can be purchased commercially in a frozen form or created at home.

There has been limited research conducted on either the costs or benefits of such diets, so there is skepticism about their use for companion animals. There are many inherent risks of raw diets that may affect the long and short term health of the animal, the health of the owner(s), and those who come in contact with the pet or waste from the pet. These risks include lack of adequate nutrition, problems associated with ingesting bones, and the presence of bacteria. Studies have found that the nutritional value of raw diets, both commercial and homemade, are lacking. Pets fed these diets on a long term basis could experience nutrient deficiencies and detrimental health effects. One recommendation is to add fruits and vegetables to a quality commercial non-raw diet to provide a more “organic” experience for your pet. Many raw diets include the bones associated with the meat products. Bones in a pet’s diet have been reported to cause intestinal obstruction, perforation, gastroenteritis and fractured teeth. These may lead to extreme discomfort, surgery or death.

Another serious risk posed by feeding a raw diet is that of bacterial contamination. This factor can be harmful to the pet and also to the humans who come in contact with the pet through feeding or cleaning. Raw food diets have been found to contain high levels of bacteria including Escherichia coli, Salmonella spp, Clostridium perfringens, C. difficile and Staphylococcus aureus. These bacteria can cause illness and diarrhea in both the pet and humans that come in contact with the food or the feces of the animal. There is special concern for the young, elderly, or immune-suppressed. Human contact with the bacteria in these pet foods generally occurs during meal preparation. Surfaces and utensils are likely to be contaminated and much care must be taken to avoid cross contamination throughout the kitchen. Also, pet dishes must be thoroughly cleaned after each feeding. It is important to remove any uneaten portions immediately to avoid additional bacterial growth. Another source of contamination comes from the feces of the pet. It has been shown that bacteria consumed through raw pet diets may be shed by the animal for 7-11 days after consumption. This poses a risk in cleaning up after the pet and the potential for small children to come in contact with fecal matter containing bacteria.

If you are considering a raw diet for your pet, it is extremely important to follow recommended hygiene guidelines to protect yourself and your family from harmful bacteria that may be present in this type of diet. Sanitize all surfaces and utensils used to prepare the meal and remove leftovers promptly. Without research supporting increased benefits of feeding a raw food diet, are the potential increased risks really worth it?

Just cook it!

Master Food Safety and Preservation Advisor

Learn the art and science of food preservation by attending Master Food Safety and Preservation.

Classes will be May 9, 11 and 17, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. at the La Plata County Fairgrounds. Completed applications are due April 15, and should be sent to your Extension office. The $75 fee is to be used for cost of training materials and supplies for Master Food Safety Advisor, the fee is due with application. Download an application at: or call the Extension office at 264-5931 for more information.


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