The Way You Handle Your Pet’s Food Could Make You Sick

Photo credit: Carol Yepes - Getty Images
Photo credit: Carol Yepes - Getty Images

Having a pet means doing a slew of daily tasks non-pet owners don’t even think about, like going for walks and doing regular feedings. But, while you’ve probably been doing these pet chores on autopilot, new research has shown you should take special care when handling your pet’s food. If not, it could have a negative impact on your health.

That’s the main takeaway from a new study published in the journal Plos One. For the study, researchers surveyed 417 dog owners on their pet food handling practices, and took 68 swabs from pet food dishes. The researchers discovered that just 4.7% of dog owners were aware that the Food and Drug Administration has special guidelines for handling pet food. Those who actually followed the best practices—which include washing your pet’s food bowl with soap and hot water after every use—were much less likely to come into contact with germs like E.coli and salmonella than those who didn't follow the guidelines.

But pet food preparation often didn’t meet the FDA’s guidelines: 43% of pet owners stored dog food between zero to five feet from human food, only 34% washed their hands after feeding their pet, and 33% prepared their dog food in the same space that they prepared their own food.

The researchers also learned that 36% of those surveyed have children aged 13 and under or people who are immunocompromised at home—two groups that are more likely to get sick if they’re exposed to E.coli and salmonella.

The researchers note that there have been several outbreaks in people who were exposed to E.coli and salmonella after handling dog food. “Bacteria such as E. coli or salmonella could be present and can be zoonotic, or transmissible to people,” says lead study author Emily Luisana, D.V.M., a small animal nutritionist at the Friendship Hospital for Animals. “Since other studies have found that bacteria can be transfer in shared sinks or dishwashers, this is potentially a real concern in the average kitchen.” Luisana also points out that “certain populations such as children, the elderly, and those who are immunocompromised would be especially at risk.”

In a follow-up survey, just 8% of people who were informed about the FDA guidelines said they plan to actually follow them in the future. “This study suggests a need for pet food handling and dish hygiene guideline education to minimize bacterial contamination of dishes, especially for high-risk populations,” the researchers wrote.

Most people don’t follow the FDA’s guidelines for safe pet food handling and aren’t even aware that they exist. So, what are these guidelines and how important is it to follow them? Experts break it down.

What are the FDA’s guidelines for handling pet food?

The FDA’s guidelines cover everything from buying pet food to storing and handling it. The FDA first recommends purchasing pet food that is in a container without visible signs of damage like dents, tears, and discoloration.

The FDA also recommends that you do the following when preparing your pet’s food:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and hot water before and after handling pet food and treats.

  • Wash your pet food bowls and scooping utensils with soap and hot water after each use.

  • Don’t scoop your pet’s food with their food bowl. Instead, use a clean scoop, spoon, or cup, and use the scooping utensil only for scooping pet food.

  • Throw out old or spoiled pet food by placing it in a securely tied plastic bag in a covered trash can.

For pet food storage, the FDA recommends taking these safety steps:

  • Refrigerate or throw out unused or leftover canned and pouched pet food.

  • Tightly cover refrigerated pet food and store it at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

  • Store dry pet food in a cool and dry place with a temperature of less than 80 degrees (excess heat or moisture can cause the nutrients to break down).

  • Store dry pet food in its original bag and keep the top of the bag tightly folded down.

  • Keep pet food in a secure location to keep your pet from eating it all at once.

The FDA also offers special advice about feeding your pet a raw food diet, noting that it “poses significant health risks to pets and pet owners.”

“Because raw pet food is more likely than processed pet food to contain harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and listeria monocytogenes, the single best thing you can do to prevent infection with these foodborne bacteria is to not feed your pet a raw diet,” the FDA says.

How important is it to follow the FDA’s guidelines?

It’s pretty important, says study co-author Korinn Saker, D.V.M., Ph.D., an associate professor of clinical nutrition in veterinary medicine at North Carolina State University. Saker points out that people can get “serious” and “life threatening” infections from pet food, noting that she once developed “a severe salmonella infection through cross contamination from a pet.” She added, “it was really a quite terrible experience.”

At minimum, it “makes sense to wash your hands after feeding pets,” says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician and professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University. That’s especially true if you actually touch the food, he adds.

Thomas Russo, M.D., professor and chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo in New York, stresses that the biggest risk of getting sick from your dog’s food is from raw pet food. “The risk with that is much greater than with dry dog food,” he says. “You need to be much more careful in washing your hands with this.” However, he says, “there’s no question that other commercially-prepared food can be contaminated as well.”

If you want to feed your dog a raw diet, just know that “it’s a gamble” in terms of your potential exposure to pathogens, says Laura Goodman, Ph.D., an assistant research professor at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. “I would treat it like your Thanksgiving turkey,” she says. “You don’t want to wash the turkey around your clean dishes and the same is true with raw pet food.”

Dr. Russo suggests viewing your handling of your pet’s food in a similar way to how you’d take care of human food. “Safe food handling practices for pets is similar to safe food handling for us,” he says.

Of course, it’s entirely possible to keep handling your pet’s food the same way you’ve always done it and not get sick—the risk is just there, Luisana says.

She says that “for healthy people and healthy pets, bacteria in dog bowls may never be a problem.” But, she adds, “certain populations, or if contamination shows up in the wrong place at the wrong time, serious illness in pets or humans can result.”

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