Pet Talk: Raw diets have risks

By Sarah Netherton/University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

The words "raw diet" brings thoughts of uncooked vegetables and meat to mind. The raw food craze has been popular among people, but is it safe to feed our animals a raw diet too?

According to Dr. Jack Herrmann, a veterinarian on faculty at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine in Urbana, as well as the director of the college's Center for One Health Illinois, pet owners should know the risks when feeding raw meat to their animals.

Salmonella and E. coli are pathogens — infectious agents that can cause disease or illness — commonly found in raw meat. The best way to prevent illness from these pathogens in animals and people is to cook meat at a high enough temperature to kill pathogens.

"People should also be careful when feeding dry food, as there have been cases reported of salmonella from dry pet food as well," Herrmann said.

In 2007, a study published in the Canadian Veterinary Journal showed that among 16 beagles fed a salmonella-contaminated commercial raw meat diet, seven "shed" salmonellae in their feces within the days after the meal. None of the dogs fed the contaminated diet showed signs of illness.

"People who feed their pet uncooked meat should be concerned about the pathogens that may be in their animal's feces, because other pets or people in the household may be exposed and contract an illness," Herrmann said. "This is especially true for cats; cats should have a clean litter box to prevent the spread of a potential pathogen throughout the household."

The fact that an animal is shedding a pathogen doesn't necessarily mean this pathogen will be transmitted to a person.

"Precautions are especially needed in households that include a person who is immune compromised, whether through an illness that affects the immune system or because the person is very young or very old," Herrmann said. "The issue with raw foods is that the chance for contamination of humans and home environment is much greater than with conventional pet foods. So, it's a relative risk issue."

It is always advisable for the individuals who feed the pet to wash their hands after feeding, whether the food is a raw diet or commercial canned or dry food.

A free public forum addressing the topic of raw foods is set for 7 p.m. April 16 at the College of Veterinary Medicine. "The Raw Facts: Food Fads, Fables and Safety" is the third in a series on public health issues, titled "One Health & You: News You Can Use," offered throughout spring 2013 by the college's Center for One Health Illinois.

A panel of experts will present evidence on topics related to human, animal, and environmental health during the first hour, and the second hour is reserved for questions and comments from the audience.

The April 16 forum will cover raw diets for people and pets, unpasteurized dairy products, and food safety regulations. It will be offered again April 17 at the Brookfield Zoo Discovery Center in suburban Chicago.

The final community forum of the series, offered May 21 in Urbana and May 22 at Brookfield, will address animal welfare issues from farms to home to zoos.

For more information about raw diets, speak with your local veterinarian or visit the website of the Center for One Health Illinois spring forum series at go.illinois.edu/onehealthandyou/.

An archive of pet columns from the UI College of Veterinary Medicine is available at http://vetmed.illinois.edu/petcolumns/. Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Chris Beuoy, beuoy@illinois.edu.

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