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Pet Food Contamination: Are Raw Diets Safe For Your Dog?

Pet Food Contamination: Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria

Having discussed the basics of a raw food diet and the non-bacterial dangers that lie within, we’re prepared to dive into the topic of pet food contamination.  All pet foods can be contaminated by bacteria. Though we do see a higher instance of it in raw foods due to improper food handling. I’ve rambled on enough that I had to make another article out of my intro, so let’s just get into the good stuff!

Pet Food Contamination: Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria

Salmonella is most commonly found in poultry products, some meats, and some dairy products.

While there are plenty of other sources for Salmonella, we tend to rely heavily on chicken both for our pet food and for our own food.  Consequently, it is the most common type of bacteria infection we see in pet food contamination.

It also happens to be part of the group of bacteria that are naturally occurring in the digestive tract. So, the mere presence of Salmonella in a pet’s system is not cause for alarm.  When there is an imbalance in the bacterial growth in the lining of the digestive tract that allows it to proliferate, this leads to a disease called “Salmonellosis”. It is particularly scary because animals can pass it to humans.

What signs are seen with Salmonellosis?

Salmonellosis is what we experience when our pets ingest a contaminated pet food that contains Salmonella.  While it doesn’t start out to be life-threatening, chronic exposure and lack of treatment may indeed lead to life-threatening signs.  There are multiple signs associated with pet food contamination involving Salmonella, including:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Lack of appetite
  • Lack of desire to drink water
  • Dehydration
  • Loss of weight despite eating
  • Mucous in their stools
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Vaginal discharge
  • Miscarriage in pregnant lady dogs (I just hate calling them bitches)
  • Sepsis (this occurs when the bacteria spread into the blood stream
  • Blood loss

How is Salmonellosis treated?

Treatment of minor cases tends to be relatively simple.  In some cases, removing the contaminated food may be enough to allow their bodies to re-balance natural growth.  Pets may need antibiotics if they continue to experience a problem.  In cases pf sepsis,  blood loss, dehydration, or other more severe signs, pet require hospitalization.  Dogs spend their days in the hospital receiving IV fluids and IV antibiotics to help kill the infection while replacing lost fluids.  Sometimes blood transfusions are necessary.

While a one-time exposure is not likely to be immediately life-threatening, the wide variety of signs makes it hard to diagnose.  If you suspect a contamination, always seek the assistance of a vet before the signs start to get too bad.  Also remember to keep a sample of any food that is suspected to be contaminated.

Pet Food Contamination: Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria

E. coli pet food contamination occurs through the mishandling of beef products, or vegetables grown in manure.

Escherichia coli is another bacteria that naturally lives in the digestive system.  Similar to Salmonella, when E. coli becomes overpopulated in the lining of the digestive system, it leads to a disease called Colibacillosis.

Puppies happen to be very susceptible to E. coli since they can get an infection before their body’s immune system starts to kick in.  This happens when a nursing mother dog passes the bacteria through her uterine lining and milk to the puppies.

What signs do we see with E. coli?

The signs of Colibacillosis are similar to the ones the Salmonella causes with a few minor differences:

  • Vomiting
  • Watery diarrhea
  • Lethargy
  • Weakness
  • Lack of appetite and lack of desire for water
  • Depression
  • Dehydration
  • Decrease in body temperature and cold skin
  • Blue gums (due to inadequate oxygen supply to the blood and tissues)

This is most common in puppies.  Due to its similarity to other diseases, a vet may need to look at the mother to try and diagnose the issue.  Nursing mother dogs may have swollen mammary glands, indicating an infection in that area.

How is E. coli treated?

Treatment for little puppies tends to be far more aggressive than a  Salmonella infection in an adult dog.  Puppies almost always need to be hospitalized.  Far too frequently they do not survive.  Their bodies experience rapid loss of fluids and the inability to keep down food that’s needed to help them thrive.  While hospitalization on IV fluids and IV antibiotics may sometimes help them recover, far too often they succumb to this bacteria.

Pet Food Contamination: Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria

Listeria is found nearly everywhere in nature, including the soil, in animals, and in raw milk products.

Listeria is my favorite of the three because it is a mystery bacteria (mysteria bacteria Listeria?). This is due to how infrequently it is actually diagnosed.  Because it lives in soil, in the intestines of some species of animals, in milk, and can contaminate all sorts of food, there is no one food product that is said to be the source of Listeria infections.  The one thing all the contaminated foods have in common is that they are all raw.  It is common to find small amounts of listeria in certain areas, so its mere presence may not be cause for alarm.

How is Listeria diagnosed?

Scientists have developed a newer technique by culturing the bacteria on a special type of food source that makes it glow blue on an agar plate. Agar is a gel-like substance that contains a lot of food that bacteria enjoy eating.  This particular plate can only support Listeria, so the blue colonies are an indication of a contaminated food source.  Infection with Listeria (which also rhymes with bacteria) is called Listeriosis.

Listeriosis is a nasty disease, and it also happens to be the one that is more prevalent in raw food diets.  While it is not as common as the other two due to higher-quality foods, we do tend to see outbreaks in food areas that are not as thoroughly processed (IE, raw milk and raw foods).

What signs do we see with Listeria?

The signs related to tummy upset and blood infection are extremely similar to the other two bacterium. In some pets, we may not see any signs at all.  Listeria is particularly scary, because it can cause inflammation of the brain due to it’s ability to locate and inhabit the brain and spinal cord.  This is most common in animals such as sheep, cows, and other ruminants (which are animals that digest their food by fermentation).  However, there have been cases of Listeria causing brain inflammation in household pets as well.

Swelling of the brain (called encephalitis), may cause neurologic signs:

  • Fever
  • Behavioral changes such as depression or aggression
  • Head tilting
  • Paralysis
  • Walking in circles
  • Uneven pupil size
  • Seizures
  • Unresponsiveness

How do we treat Lysteria?

Hospitalization is always required for animals who are showing severe signs of this illness.  When a pet starts showing neurological signs, the vet will need to step in and control the seizures.  They will also start IV antibiotics to get it out of the pet’s brain and spinal cord.  In some cases, the signs may seem to go away, only to come back stronger once treatment is stopped. This is due to a failure to completely eliminate the bacteria from the body.

Successful recovery depends on the severity of the signs.  Animals who respond well to initial treatments may have a full recovery. Pets who are showing neurological signs have a higher chance of death.

Always, always, ALWAYS cook a pet’s food if you feed at home.  It is tempting to bow to the pressure of not cooking the food because of “loss of nutrition”. However, the addition of supplements and good sources of food can help preserve the quality of a cooked home-fed diet. Cooked diets have  far less risk of the above three diseases. As always, the intent is to provide the best for your pets.  The more you arm yourself with knowledge, the better your pet’s quality of life.

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