Preliminary findings from data collected during the past two years from the Food and Drug Administration’s Veterinary Laboratory Investigation and Response Network (Vet-LIRN) and 11 university veterinary labs across the country reveal that fewer than 100 dogs and cats of nearly 3,000 tested were positive for Salmonella bacteria. Also, nearly half of the dogs with positive tests results showed no symptoms of Salmonella infection, and those dogs that did test positive were more likely to have eaten raw pet food, FDA reports. Vet-LIRN embarked on the study to find out how often pet food makes an animal sick, whether pets can carry harmful bacteria without showing any symptoms (and, if so, for how long), and what precautions people can take to avoid being sickened themselves. When contaminated with harmful bacteria such as Salmonella, pet foods and treats can make pets sick. These bacteria can also spread from animals to owners, and people can be sickened simply from handling contaminated pet food, FDA stated. “Ultimately, we’re hoping to learn ways FDA can help minimize the incidence of foodborne illness associated with pet foods and treats,” said Renate Reimschuessel, a research biologist and veterinarian and head of Vet-LIRN. Under Vet-LIRN, FDA partners with 34 state and university veterinary laboratories across the country to investigate concerns reported by pet owners. Over the past two years, 11 of the Vet-LIRN labs have focused specifically on Salmonella infections in dogs and cats. The goal of each lab was to collect stool samples from 100 dogs and cats with signs of salmonellosis, such as diarrhea or bloody stool, and to collect samples from another 100 dogs and cats without signs to establish a control group. However, because it’s harder to collect samples from cats and because fewer cats with gastrointestinal problems were brought into veterinary clinics, the study focused mainly on dogs. Reimschuessel said it was essential to harmonize study methods through a standard questionnaire and brochure. For example, originally, the 11 labs each had their own ideas about how to disseminate and collect information. For the study to work properly, all the labs needed to agree on what procedures to follow. Ultimately, the survey asked pet owners in-depth questions on such topics as recent signs of illness, diet (including treats), dog park visits, and medication use. Almost 3,000 animals were tested in veterinary clinics across the country. Researchers are currently analyzing the data and hope to publish study results no later than 2016. Careful attention is being given to quality control, FDA stated. While final results aren’t available yet, Reimschuessel said that the news for pet owners appears to be pretty good. Out of 2,965 animals tested, researchers have found fewer than 100 actually testing positive for the bacteria. “Pet owners should know, though, that almost half of the dogs that tested positive for Salmonella showed no symptoms,” she said. A dog may show no signs of illness yet still carry the bacteria, which can potentially spread to other members of the household. For young children, older adults, or individuals with compromised immune systems, bacterial illnesses can be especially serious. Additionally, the dogs that tested positive for Salmonella were more likely to have eaten raw pet food, study results show. Scientific literature indicates that raw foods are more likely than processed foods to test positive for Salmonella and Listeria monocytogenes, another common cause of disease, in part because they have not gone through a “kill step” such as heat processing. FDA routinely conducts sampling assignments to inform its research and surveillance activities, and this year will sample raw pet food products. The results from sampling assignments help the agency target its resources to areas that have the greatest impact on public health. One way to know if a pet food may be a potential source of contamination is to check FDA’s list of recalled products. In the meantime, there are a number of steps people can take to avoid spreading illness in the event that pet foods and treats may be contaminated.
- Avoid buying pet food in dented cans or with damaged packaging.
- Feed your pets in a location that can be easily cleaned and sanitized.
- Wash countertops, tables, or any surfaces compromised when pet foods have come into contact with them.
- Earmark some utensils for use only with pet foods.
- Wash hands carefully after handling pet foods.
- Keep dry pet foods in a cool, dry place and sealed in a container to prevent spoilage.
- No matter how you store your pet food, keep the original packaging which contains data such as the manufacturer’s contact information, lot code, and UPC number. These facts can be useful if a pet food is a suspected source of illness and an investigation is underway.
Some additional information from FDA about safe handling tips for pet foods and treats can be found here.