“Because pet foods and treats contain animal-origin products, they are at risk of contamination with Salmonella, E. coli, and other organisms,” says Kimberly May, DVM, MS, department director of communications in the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Marketing & Communications Division. Her four-legged friends include Ladybug the mutt, Crackerjack the mule, and Ricki the Quarter Horse.
“In general, these animal-origin products are cooked to temperatures that will kill pathogenic organisms,” Dr. May relates. “However, if a contaminated additive—a flavoring, for example—is added to the food after cooking or if the food comes in contact with contaminated materials, the food may be contaminated.”
There are many safeguards in place to minimize the risk of contamination of pet food during the manufacturing process, “but using caution when handling these foods is always recommended,” Dr. May advises.
There may seem to be more pet foods being recalled of late due to possible Salmonella contamination, Dr. May points out. “There are several potential reasons for this,” she says. “One potential reason is that the large-scale, melamine-related pet food recall of 2007 increased public and media awareness of and sensitivity to pet food safety concerns. Another potential reason is the increased vigilance of the manufacturers and the federal government regarding Salmonella and other public health concerns, leading to increased surveillance and reporting.”
A third potential reason for seemingly more pet food recalls, Dr. May says, is the existence of FDA’s Reportable Food Registry, an electronic portal established in 2010 for industry to report when there is reasonable probability that an article of food will cause serious adverse health consequences.
“This early detection reporting system requires and allows immediate reporting of safety problems with food and animal feed, including pet food, instead of relying solely on inspection to identify problems,” Dr. May elaborates. “It also facilitates prompt recognition of larger-scale problems associated with animal and pet feeds, which allows for quicker action to protect animal health and public health.”
Increased recalls are not an indication that pet foods are unsafe in general, Dr. May emphasizes. “Considering that the majority of recent recalls have been precautionary and not associated with illness in pets or people, these recalls may indicate that they are preventing illness by catching the problems earlier,” she relates.
That said, the fact remains that there have been illnesses linked to commercially processed pet food, and precautions should be taken, Dr. May advises.
“No pet food is immune from the possibility of contamination,” she says. “There is evidence that feeding raw foods, such as raw meat and eggs, increases the risk of Salmonella infection and shedding of the bacteria, which can lead to possible infection of other animals and of people. Regardless of the type of food you choose to feed your pet, proper precautions should be taken to protect your family’s health.”
Apparently healthy but Salmonella-infected animals can be carriers and may infect other animals or humans, particularly through exposure to their feces by the oral fecal route. Salmonella can be shed in the stool of pets for four to six weeks after infection. Pets may also harbor Salmonella on their fur or in their saliva, which can potentially contaminate humans.
Pets with Salmonella infections may be lethargic and have diarrhea or bloody diarrhea, fever, and vomiting. Some pets will have a decreased appetite, fever, and abdominal pain. However, not all pets carrying Salmonella will appear sick.
“If a pet has consumed a recalled product and has these signs, you should contact your veterinarian,” Dr. May advises. “And if your pet has developed an illness that you suspect came from his or her food, contact your veterinarian for treatment and report the problem to the manufacturer and to the FDA through the reporting portal so it can be further investigated.”