Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, oh my! Why I Don’t Recommend Raw Meat for Pets

I received an email from a concerned pet owner this week who found my contact information on the American College of Veterinary Nutrition website. She had reached out because her 14-year-old dog had recently been diagnosed with liver cancer. Her primary veterinarian had told her that the cancer seemed to be involving about 90% of the liver and there was nothing they could do to treat this condition. Being the dedicated “pet parent” that she was she won’t take this as the final answer, so looked into alternative therapies and ended up in my inbox.

I would say this was a fairly common type of “self-referral” that I saw in practice. Concerned caregiver is given bad news from their regular veterinarian and comes to see the Veterinary Nutritionist for a second opinion on treatment options. They often have seen the Veterinary Nutritionist as another type of “holistic” veterinarian and assume I am going to recommend raw meat diets and homeopathy, and are surprised when I say balanced cooked meats with carbohydrates (*gasp*) and only supplements that have (at least some) scientific evidence for use.  I would say that I am a “holistic” veterinarian in the true Oxford English Dictionary sense of the word. Holistic: Medicine Characterized by the treatment of the whole person, taking into account mental and social factors, rather than just the symptoms of a disease.” But taking the whole patient and family life into account is very different than recommending unproven and potentially dangerous diets and supplements.

Caitlin and Maggie hugs

A “whole patient” approach involves the companion animal and the family.

I look at my patients from head to tail (or if I am working remotely, physical exam notes and conversations with the managing veterinarian). I review the medical and diet history as well as the family’s lifestyle and medical goals for their dog or cat. I spend time discussing my Dietary Treatment Plans in person with caregivers (or with the managing veterinarian if it is a remote consult), then I spend additional time outside of the exam room developing and writing what I felt was the best plan for all involved (patient and caregiver). My plans consider patient and owner preferences as well as the overall medial and nutritional needs of the dog or cat.  Despite taking a whole patient approach to my practice, I would not label myself as a “holistic” veterinarian, which brings me back to my potential new client and her dog with cancer.

I sent a brief note within 12-hours of the time on her email (she sent the first email late at night and I responded in the morning when I read it) stating that I was sorry to hear about her companion’s illness and that I would be happy to work with her and her veterinarian to develop a diet plan that supported her dog’s medical and dietary needs. I also included information about how to initiate the consult request through her regular veterinarian’s office. She replied the next day that while waiting for my reply (again my response had been less than 12-hours from her first email, but I understand that it can seem like forever when you are dealing with a sick loved one) she had consulted a “holistic” veterinarian who had put her dog on a regiment of raw meat and raw bones, but that she did have a question about a supplement she heard had anti-cancer properties. Oy. Without spending any more time than necessary on my reply to her second email I referred her back to her “holistic” veterinarian for guidance and wished her well, all the while feeling terrible for this poor dog whose new diet is likely going to hasten the end. The high protein content alone will make a dog with liver disease worse (like vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, and more rapid death worse) and this old dog with his compromised immune system is at a very high risk of becoming ill from food-borne illness, but I don’t know her or her dog so wasn’t going to offer any medical advice over an email.

For the record: I do not recommend feeding raw animal products to dogs and cats.  Yes, dogs adapted to life with human over 10,000 years ago and cats started living with humans approximately 5,000 years ago, while commercial cooked diets have only been in existence for the last 150 or so. Early dogs and cats definitely ate raw meat but they also lived 4-5 years and were not living in the home licking the children.

Caitlin and Raider lick

This is why I say “no thank you” to raw meat diets.

Knowing the essential nutrient requirements for healthy dogs and cats I could balance a raw meat based diet, but I choose not to because I am concerned about the health and welfare of my patients and their human families. Healthy animals may be more “resistant” to pathogenic bacteria, but their human family members and animals with compromised immune systems (the very young, old, or those with chronic disease) are not. There are a number of published case reports demonstrating this and a more complete scientific review of this style of diet can be found in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (JAVMA), but I think people relate to personal experience better than published data at times so I would like to share my experiences with raw meat diets.

Why I Don’t Recommend Raw…

There were four cases I was involved over my years in practice that helped cement my anti-raw stance. The first occurred during my Residency. I worked with a veterinarian who was trying to convince her client to stop feeding a raw meat diet. The owner kept refusing because she believed that raw meat diet cleared up the dog’s skin issues (despite it causing Campylobacter-induced recurrent diarrhea and expensive emergency room visits, hence the veterinarian trying to convince her to change), but it wasn’t until the owner herself ended up in the hospital with a Campylobacter infection that she agreed as well.

The second case was one I saw as a newly minted and board-certified Veterinary Nutrition Specialist. It was a 1-year-old Soft-Coated Wheaton Terrier with food-allergic dermatitis (food allergies that made it scratch and lose fur), whose owner walked into the exam room with the dog and told me that if I recommended raw meat he was walking back out. I asked him to take a seat because I thought we would get along just fine. The owner then told me that he and his wife purchased this dog as a puppy from a breeder who fed a commercial raw meat diet. Despite changing to a dry commercial puppy food and never feeding a raw diet in their home, within one week of the new puppy joining the household he (the husband) ended up in the hospital with salmonellosis. Turns out he suffers from Crohn’s disease and the puppy brought more than joy into the new household.  And yes, the dry puppy food was tested and was cleared and the Salmonella strain was serotyped to the puppy.

The third case was a pet owner (not one of my clients, but one who came to the General Practice at my same clinic) who was feeding a commercial raw meat diet and asked the neighbor’s teenage son to feed and walk their dog while the rest of their family went on vacation. The teenage neighbor agreed (it was a paying job after all) and about the time the family returned from vacation, the same teenage neighbor was hospitalized for Salmonella. The Salmonella was very clearly linked to the raw meat diet the teenager was handling and a friendly neighborhood lawsuit ensued. Needless to say, the pet owner lost the case as well as her home owners insurance.

The fourth case was a 6-month-old puppy that had seen a ‘”holistic” veterinarian as a second opinion because he (the puppy) refused to eat any dry or canned food the owner offered. This veterinarian sold the owner a raw meat diet that was made locally for the veterinary clinic. It was expensive (but cost equals quality, right?), but the puppy loved this new food and ate it willingly. When her first batch of food ran low, the owner purchased more from the “holistic” veterinarian and things continued to go well for another month. But, one month later and within 24-hours of starting a new container of food the puppy stopped eating, developed profuse bloody diarrhea, and ended up at the emergency clinic of the hospital I worked at to be treated for fever and dehydration. Unfortunately treatment was started by the time I was brought in on the case and we didn’t have a sample of the suspected diet other than the empty and cleaned out container, so I cannot prove this was a food-borne pathogen, but highly suspicious.

photolibrary_photo_of_woman_feeding_dog_pasta

We love to share with our dogs and cats, but hopefully not their bacteria.

Feed what is right for your dog or cat and safe for everyone involved…

I don’t think there is one prefect diet for every dog or cat and I don’t really care what brand or style of food people feed their companion dogs and cats as long as it is healthy and safe. I have worked with dogs and cats that did not do well on commercial dry or canned foods, but thrived on complete and balanced cooked home-prepared diets. And I have also seen animals fail home-prepared diet trials but do well on the consistent formulation and digestibility afforded by commercial dry or canned pet foods. Dogs and cats require essential nutrients not ingredients, and how those nutrients get in will depend on the needs of the individual. But please, no raw animal product.

Happy (and safe) Feeding!

Lisa P. Weeth, DVM, MRCVS, DACVN

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32 thoughts on “Campylobacter, Salmonella, E. coli, oh my! Why I Don’t Recommend Raw Meat for Pets

  1. Excellent post! As an emergency veterinarian, I have seen many cases of suspect food borne illness in patients on raw food diets. Dogs eat enough stuff that is bad for them all on their own without us contributing to the problem by recommending raw food diets. Thanks for being a voice of reason!

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    • Thanks, Lynne! My feeling exactly. Dogs can get themselves into enough trouble without us increasing their (and our) risks. When I have pet owners and “holistic” veterinarians tell me how great raw meat diets are, I always wonder if their local emergency vets would agree.

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      • While I’m not an organic chemist, I’ve been under the impression that a dog’s gastric juices have an extremely high molar concentration of HCl. This is what enables canines to feed upon carrion, or in the case of hunters, the sick or diseased prey that they take down. After all, canine hunters often weed out the weakest in a herd.

        What is in fact the molar concentration in the average domestic canine’s gastric juices and does it still enable an environment hospitable to the bacteria Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli?

        (Personally, I’m more concerned about getting E. coli from prepackaged raw spinach or lettuce than I am from anything my dog eats.)

        Also, did you ever follow up with the dog with liver cancer to see how the animal progressed on a raw diet? Would a high protein diet be as taxing on the liver as it would on the kidneys? What was the dogs diet prior to the diagnosis? Could the cancer have been attributed to a diet of highly processed dry kibble, akin to a human eating nitrate laden hotdogs for a lifetime?

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      • Hi Scot,
        Thank you for taking the time to write to me.
        You are right that the average gastric pH of dogs is low (most studies report a mean of about 2.0 when dogs are fasted), but there is a lot of individual variation and one study even reported a range of 2.7-8.3 in apparently healthy normal fasted dogs (Akimoto et al 2000). This seems to overlap with the ranges seen in people from what I’ve read (Kong and Singh 2008 is a good review).
        Gastric acidity would be enough to kill some, but not all, pathogenic bacteria and there have even been a few published reports of otherwise healthy adult dogs documenting this. Two of them, Lefebve et al 2008 and Leonard et al 2011, simply collected fresh stool samples from dogs fed a variety of different diets and found that healthy dogs fed raw meat diets shed Salmonella more frequently in their feces than their dry food counterparts, though my favorite of the studies from this same group of researchers was published in 2007 by Finley et al. The authors of that study intentionally contaminated a raw meat diet with Salmonella to see what kind of recovery rates they would get and for how long. They fed 16 dogs the raw meat+ Salmonella diet and then 12 dogs were fed the same raw meat diet that was Salmonella-free. They found that 7 of 16 (44%) dogs eating the Salmonella+diet shed the same Salmonella strain in the stool for 1-7 days after stopping the diet, while none of the 12 dogs fed the Salmonella-free raw meat diet shed any Salmonella at any time point.

        I think the dog’s cancer had more to do with age (he was 14+ year old) than anything he was eating. I also haven’t heard from this owner again about how her dog was doing. In my last reply to her I urged caution as high protein diets can definitely make the clinical signs of liver disease worse. The first step in protein metabolism occurs in the liver and if the liver is not working well, some of the by-products of abnormal protein and fatty acid metabolism can be toxic to the nervous system causing vomiting, difficulties walking, head pressing, and even seizures. Not a good way to spend your remaining days.

        Lisa Weeth

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, just ignore the many allergies that disappear when going from dry “food” to high quality, fresh food. Just ignore the many E-number ingredients, just ignore the pesticides and many anti-oxidants, for keeping the nasty waste fresh, just ignore the prove of salmonella in dry food. Just ignore the many cats with dehydrated kidney’s and kidney stones who will disappear when you throw away the dry food. Please do some research… You emergency-vets did not know what to do with my dog, they’ve searched 2years for his allergie, and it costs a lot of money. After 2years i heard about the meat. And the problems where gone. That is prove. Maybe you can say something about heating or steaming the meat. That might be safer for weak humans. But don’t promote the commercial food, that are only big money recycling companys who don’t give a damn about the health of your pet. Otherwise they don’t need to fill the dry pet food with color, taste, and aroma supplements. The only dry food i might recommend is the high quality, such as Acana, Orijen, Applaws,…

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    • Hi Stef,

      Thank you for your comments and I am glad to hear that your pup improved with the diet change, but I would argue that this had more to do with the diet change itself rather than the fact that it was raw meat based.
      I don’t think any commercial diet has a better approach than others. Big, small, “organic”, “natural”, grocery store or pet boutique. They are all focused on profits. My preference is for companies that take some of that profit and support advancing our knowledge about animal health and wellness instead of just boosting their bank accounts. You won’t find me promoting any particular diet on this site, just awareness.
      What I took from your comments was that veterinary schools in general need to improve their nutrition education. I was fortunate in that I attended a veterinary school that emphasized the importance of nutrition in disease management. During my general veterinary school days I was able to take basic and clinical nutrition, had the opportunity to attend nutrition conferences, and I was even able to participate in nutrition studies (I looked at the effect of processing on markers of gastrointestinal health in cats). During my residency at the same university I took graduate courses in human nutrition through the (human) Nutrition Department on the main campus AND worked with patients in the veterinary teaching hospital. I was able to learn everything I could about nutrition and its role in disease management, and I continue to learn through attending conference and working with patients. I think I have a pretty good handle on nutrition for dogs and cats.
      What has me worried are the veterinary schools that have no (zero) classes in nutrition during veterinary school. It is unfortunate that nutrition is seen as an expendable subject by some universities so that practicing veterinarians are more comfortable grabbing a drug to treat skin disease than working through potential dietary triggers.
      What my experience and training has taught me is that there is no one perfect way to feed dogs and cats. I would absolutely agree that some dogs and cats do better on a more limited ingredient, less processed diet like what is found in home-prepared foods, just as I would agree that dry kibble is not the best diet for all dogs and cats (though for some it is). I have serious concerns about the health risk of feeding raw meats to dogs and cats living inside homes and I have seen first-hand the negative consequences to people and pets who have contract food-borne illness. The benefits of feeding a less processed, limited ingredient diet don’t change with cooking, but the potential negative health affects do.

      Lisa Weeth

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for the great and very thorough response Lisa! It looks like I have some reading to do. We took nutrition very seriously when we first adopted our pets. And even though we have settled into a routine that is comfortable for us, I still like to keep researching and learning. As you stated above, it is evident that there is no one perfect way to feed dogs and cats. And there seems to be new data and information all the time.

    I also want you to know that I read the journal article that you coauthored and linked in this post. It is great to have access to such research as opposed to solely anecdotal evidence that seems prevalent to many pet nutrition websites and blogs.

    Thanks again for your time!

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  7. I’ve been feeding a raw diet for 12 years. In those 12 years I have also raised 3 children, now 21, 18 and 15. We haven’t had one case of food borne illness in our dogs or kids. Before raw 4 out of 4 of our dogs became afflicted with various types of cancer. Since feeding raw we’ve had no cancers in any of our dogs. We have 6 dogs ranging in age from 11 down to 1 year old. I don’t think this is just coincidence. Dogs are much healthier on a raw diet. My dogs don’t experience any of the chronic diseases we see in them today, no skin issues, no cancer, no diabetes etc. BTW dogs can’t have diabetes on a raw food diet because they aren’t ingesting any sugars!!!

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    • Hi Heather,

      Thanks for taking the time to read and send in a comment. I am glad to hear that your experiences with raw meat diets have been positive and that you and your family seem to have good food hygiene habits. I’m sorry to hear that you have lost dogs to cancer. It is always tough to lose a loved one whether they have 2 or 4 legs.

      My own experiences with commercial dry pet foods have been as positive as yours with raw and no one in my family has developed a food-borne pathogen despite recalls for Salmonella among certain dry food manufacturers. Our family dogs ate semi-moist diet their whole lives (my mom was a sucker for Gaines Burgers) and they lived to the relatively disease-free ages of 14-15 years before dying of old age (they all became arthritic and nearly deaf and blind but no cancers). My husband and I got our Labrador Maggie as a puppy and she ate nothing by dry kibble (if you don’t count the random bits of bread, cake, etc that she snagged off the counter or from the kids when they were little) until she hit about 13 years of age when she decided that she preferred my home-cooking and then lived another year and a half before having a stroke (while coincidentally occurred while eating an exclusively fresh food diet) and we had to make the decision to end her suffering. We adopted our Labrador Raider when he was 4 years of age and he did very well on his limited ingredient dry food (for food allergies) until his arthritis became so bad that at the age of 13 & half years we had to make the decision to end his suffering. The cats that I’ve been responsible for (10 in total from the time I was 13 years old until today) as well as my parent’s cats have lived to between 18-20+ years eating primarily dry cat food with occasional canned food, and none of these cats have developed cancer, none of them have developed diabetes (despite some of them being on the pudgy size), none of them have had urinary problems, and none of them have had chronic skin issues. I consider myself to have been a very lucky pet caregiver that I’ve never had to make the decision to amputate a leg due to osteosarcoma, never had to give twice a day insulin injections, never had to make a life-or-death decision to take an dog or cat to surgery to remove a urinary stone. All while feeding dry dog and cat foods.

      Every cat and dog is an individual and my goal is to help caregivers make the best, most informed decision for their 2- and 4-legged families.

      Lisa

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  8. I’ve fed my dogs a raw diet for at least 15 years (two German Shepherds) and as I clean like I do when handling raw meat for myself, I have never gotten any parasitic infection from feeding raw. Instead my German Shepherds live longer than the normal age for them and are very very healthy. Dogs have short acidic guts that handle the bacteria with no problem. And how many recalls have their been of kibble brands because of salmonella? Plenty and a lot more than any raw diet recalls.

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    • Hi Wendy,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to send in a comment. It sounds like you are taking the right precautions against food-borne pathogens for you and your family. You are correct that most healthy adult dogs and cats can handle most pathogenic bacteria without an issue. I am actually more concerned about young, old, or immune compromised animals (and people) than I am about healthy adults.

      One of the challenges I have in talking to dog and cat caregivers about the potential risk of raw meat diets is the fact that the safety inspections, when they occur, are largely focused on foods that have the largest market share and therefore represent a risk to the most number of people. Since the majority of dog and cat caregivers in the US feed dry kibble, that is the segment of the pet food industry that has and does receive the bulk of the oversight. Absence of historic recalls for commercially-prepared raw meat diets does not mean that they are “safer” than dry kibble, it actually reflects the fact that the FDA did not begin inspecting raw meat diet manufacturers until a few years ago. New regulations on pet food manufacturing (Food Safety Modernization Act http://www.fda.gov/Food/GuidanceRegulation/FSMA/) are set to take effect in 2016 and should result in a decrease in pet food recalls across all food types.

      Lisa

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  9. I’m interested in your statistic that “early dogs and cats definitely ate raw meat but they also lived 4-5 years.” Can you point me to any scientific, peer-reviewed research studies to back this up, AND, if it is valid, cold hard facts that it was due to their diet and not the fact that they were often prey and/or a myriad of other reasons, such as parasites, etc.?

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    • Hi Shannon,

      Thank you for reading and taking the time to submit a question. The point I was trying (and maybe failing) to make was that we cannot look at historic diets to tell us the best way to feed dogs and cats. Early dogs and cats had shortened lifespans due to all of the reasons you have listed (bacterial, viral, parasitic infestations, starvation, predation, etc) so we don’t know if the diets they ate would have been optimal for longevity. We do know that feral dog populations living without human intervention today live short lives (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/08/0821_030821_straydogs_2.html) and that all wild animal populations go through boom-bust cycles related to their ecological environment and availability of resources. Raw-meat advocates will often make the statement that raw meat diets are better suited to meeting the needs of today’s dogs and cats because that’s what dogs and cats have eaten historically, but we don’t have any evidence for this either. The only way to determine which type of diet is better than another would be to conduct long-term feeding studies that run from growth, reproduction, and natural end of life. It would also need to be conducted in different breeds of dogs and cats using thousands of individuals in each diet group to reach a meaningful answer.

      To my knowledge no one has conducted long-term comparison studies using balanced raw meat diets and balanced dry food diets. This doesn’t mean that balanced raw meat diets may not be better suited for some individuals (I had a case that did better on raw meat than any other food offered, including the same diet with cooked meat instead of raw) or that balanced fresh foods cooked meat diets aren’t better for a portion of the pet population (I’ve personally developed thousands of successful home-cooked recipes for dogs and cats that did not do well on commercial canned or dry diets), BUT commercial dry diets have successfully been fed to tens of millions of dogs and cats over the last 60 years so shouldn’t be discounted as a convenient and cost effective way to maintain health and wellness in the “average” dog or cat.

      Lisa

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    • There’s no way to determine how long dogs and cats lived thousands of years ago. However, 4-5 years is probably about right for dogs in the recent past. In fact, my vet commented that when we were growing up (we’re both in our sixties) our pets rarely lived to be more than 5-6 years of age. There’s no doubt that animals live much longer today because they eat better and they receive veterinary care. It wasn’t that long ago that most vets took care of livestock and horses.

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      • Hi Sam,

        You are correct that looking at fossil
        records isn’t an exact science but there are ways to estimate the age of bones and skulls based on the presence of growth plates (for the young) or wear patterns on teeth (for the older). Most historians over the last 2000+ years of recorded history didn’t keep detailed accounts of domestic digs and cats, but every so often archeologists will find dog or cat remains in burial chambers or among the remains of ancient villages. These findings give us a glimpse at what life was like for people and animals living thousands of years ago. I find it all fascinating and love reading about early civilizations, but majored in Evolution and Ecology before vet school so am a bit geeky that way. 🙂

        I also like learning about the evolution of veterinary medicine. Vet schools across the US lament the fact that more students are choosing to focus on small animal medicine (dogs and cats) rather than large (horses and livestock) or mixed animal (everything) medicine. I think this reflects the change in relationships that we are having with animals. Fewer people are growing up in rural areas or on farms and for many people the relationship with animals has changed from benevolent owner to “pet parent”. I could go on about what I think are the risks of anthropomorphizing dogs and cats, but in general this dedication to dog and cat health has lead to great advances in pet care, pet health, and dog and cat longevity.

        Lisa

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  10. I’ve been feeding my pups a commercial raw food diet for two years now. While my older dog did “fine” on Origen and later, Acana, she does AMAZING on the raw food!
    She used to have issues with her anal glands, which have been problem-free for the past two years. Her coat is soft and shiny, and her teeth white.
    We made the switch after an episode of IVDD (unrelated to diet, of course) caused us to reevaluate her general health. Since painkillers and anti inflammatories can negatively affect the liver, and being in pain poorly effects immunity, I wanted to be sure she was getting the best nutrition possible.
    At our last vet visit, my vet wanted to know what we feed her. He was inquiring because of the excellent state of her teeth (she’s 7) and slim physique (she’s a Dachshund). I was reluctant to admit that we’ve been feeding raw, because your stance is the common one among veterinarians. Thankfully he advised us to “keep doing what you’re doing”.
    Oh, and neither she nor my younger dog have had a single upset tummy in the last two years. Their poop is minimal and virtually odorless. While on kibble, stomach issues seemed normal. The worst was one instance of bloody vomiting and diarrhea which required a stay at the e-vet’s and IV fluids. She had eaten nothing but her regular kibble.
    So for my dogs, I have no intention of ever going back to junk food. Perhaps as they age, I’ll start feeding homecooked meals. But for now, they thrive on raw food.

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    • Hi Nicole,

      I’m glad your pups are doing well on their current diets and would also add that your experiences with more expensive “premium” diets have been mine as well with these same types of foods. Many of these “premium” brands do not use very digestible protein sources (which can contribute to stinker poops) and have pretty high calorie contents (which can lead to weight gain unless you keep an eye on their food intake). Fresh food diets are more digestible, tend to have higher essential fatty and total fat levels, and because they have a higher water content than dry kibble (70% vs 10%, respectively), are less calorie dense. A very good combination for a small breed dog.

      For your pups I would recommend making sure that the diet you are using is complete and balanced for long-term feeding (you can get away with a lot in an adult animal for a year or two, but will eventually catch up to them). There are some complete and balanced raw meat commercial diets that are manufactured in a way to minimize bacterial contamination, and there are techniques you can use at home to minimize potential spread if they do come in contact with pathogenic bacteria. In my experience the benefits of a fresh food diet are still present when the meats are cooked instead of raw, but if they are eating one of these “safe” raw diets I wouldn’t be hard pressed to change them either. If you are feeding a home-prepared raw diet, I’d recommend cooking the meats. In my experience cooked fresh meat balanced diets are just as beneficial as fresh raw meat diet, but without the potential risk of food-borne pathogens. And if you’re feeding a recipe you prepare at home I’d also recommend having your recipes evaluated by a Veterinary Nutritionist to make sure that your pups are receiving all of the essential nutrients they need to help keep them looking and feeling good for years to come.

      Lisa

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