Most pet owners do not think feeding their animals with raw food increases infection risk, according to a study.

The survey by the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Helsinki in Finland looked at perceptions of food-transmitted pathogens among pet owners who feed their animal’s raw food.

The study, published in the Veterinary Record journal, found that foodborne pathogens are rarely transmitted to humans through raw pet food. The safety of feeding such items to pets has grown as a topic of debate. Raw food is any meat, internal organs, bones and cartilage fed to pets uncooked.

Reports of outbreaks linked to pet treats and dry food can be found across the world. For example, in the United States, CDC and FDA are advising people not to buy pig ear dog treats or feed them to their pets due to an outbreak of Salmonella with 143 infections in 35 states. People get sick after handling the treats or caring for dogs who ate them. Dogs might become ill after eating them.

Mostly Campylobacter and Salmonella

A total of 16,475 households from 81 countries responded to the internet survey. It was not possible to say if the risk of contamination is higher in some countries compared with others.

Only 39 households reported having been contaminated by pet food and were able to name the pathogen. Twenty four households had contamination from pet food but could not name the pathogen causing symptoms.

Twelve and 17 households reported Salmonella and Campylobacter infections, respectively. There were eight occurrences of E. coli, two of Toxoplasma and a single Yersinia infection. Meat fed to pets had been analyzed in only three households, identifying the same pathogen as found in samples from infected individuals. All were E. coli; one from beef, the other from a Big County Raw product but the type of meat was not specified, and the last from a product bought from an abattoir but animal species was not mentioned.

Feeding salmon and turkey, using more than 50 percent of the diet as raw foods and preparing such food in the same place and with the same utensils as the family foods had a negative association with infections.

In the study, only 7.2 percent of the non-transmission of pathogens (NTP) households handled raw pet food in a different place than human food and most (68.4 percent) used the same place and same utensils as for human food.

Correlation of infection related to children

In total, 99.6 percent of households feeding their pets raw food did not report any pathogens being transmitted from the food to humans. The time respondents had been feeding raw food to their pets ranged from several weeks to 65 years.

“It was surprising to find that statistical analyses identified fewer infections in households with more than 50 percent of the pet diet consisting of raw food. Furthermore, feeding pets raw salmon or turkey was associated with a smaller number of infections,” said researcher Johanna Anturaniemi from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

In four of the 39 households with infections, those sick were children between two and six years of age, while in two houses those ill were immunocompromised people with cancer and Crohn’s disease.

A positive correlation with infection was found in relation to children between two and six years old living in the household, even though most of the infected individuals (90 percent) were adults.

“This raises the question of whether the pathogens could have been transmitted by children from outdoors, daycare centers or other public spaces, even if pet food had been assumed to be the source of infection,” said Anturaniemi.

According to scientists, further research is needed to assess the role of other factors in infections.

The survey was available from July 2017 to February 2018, was targeted to dog and cat owners who feed pets with raw animal products and was translated into English, Finnish, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese.

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