6 min read

Is Raw Feeding Your Pet Dangerous for Your Health?

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By Emily Gantt

Published: 03/29/2022, edited: 04/09/2022

Reviewed by a licensed veterinary professional: Dr. Linda Simon, MVB MRCVS

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Pet food comes in many forms: Dry, wet, dehydrated, home-cooked, and, of course, raw. Every type of pet food has pros and cons, and raw diets are no different. However, raw diets tend to be riskier than other pet foods, both for the pets who eat them and the humans who prepare them.

A 2021 study found that most pet parents underestimate the human health risks of handling raw meat. Check out some of the findings below:

  • 95% of pet parents were "very confident" they were preparing their pets' raw diet safely
  • 89% believe the risk of contracting a food-borne illness from their pets' raw diet is "low"
  • More than half of pet parents don't use separate utensils and kitchen surfaces to prep their pets' raw food

But what exactly are the dangers of raw feeding? And how can you avoid them? We'll explore answers to these questions (and others) as we take a deep dive into the practice of raw feeding.

person feeding a cat a piece of raw meat

What are the risks of raw feeding your pet?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne illnesses affect 48 million Americans yearly — that's 1 in 6 people on average! While the USDA and meatpacking plants implement many rules to ensure food safety, there's still a risk of contracting food-borne illnesses every time you handle raw meat. 

Raw meat travels through several different facilities and is handled by many people before it ever reaches grocery store shelves, which means there's ample opportunity for it to become contaminated. Food-borne illnesses can range from mild to severe and can even be deadly for at-risk groups like the immunosuppressed, the elderly, children, and those who are pregnant. In fact, 3,000 Americans die each year due to food-borne illness.

Bacteria

Contracting bacterial food poisoning is a very real risk for those who choose to raw feed their pets. When you think of food-borne illnesses, the first diseases that probably comes to mind are Salmonella and E. coli — but those aren't the only types of bacteria that can find their way into your pet's meals (and your system). Raw meat can also become contaminated with listeria and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis, among others.

One study by the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine that tested 196 samples of raw dog food found 7% of the samples were contaminated with Salmonella, and 16% were contaminated with Listeria. Feeding your pet raw chicken is especially risky — chickens are common carriers of the bacteria, and the USDA does not currently require Salmonella vaccines for chickens reared for their meat.

There have also been several outbreaks of Tuberculosis in cats

https://wagwalking.com/cat/condition/tuberculosis

 due to raw feeding. Cats can contract M. bovis or M. microti bacteria from contaminated food and spread the infection to people and other pets through their respiratory droplets and contact with skin lesions.  

It's not just raw meat that can cause these infections, either. In 2019, more than 150 people contracted Aalmonella after handling contaminated dried pig ear chews.


I'm not personally a raw diet advocate. They put dogs and pet parents at increased risk of food poisoning, and the health benefits are not proven when compared to a complete, cooked diet. — Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS, member of Wag!'s licensed veterinary team


Parasites

Although you are unlikely to contract parasites from meat sold for human consumption, there's always a chance of getting sick when handling raw meat. The cooking process usually kills any parasite eggs or larvae, but parasite eggs can live in raw meat for days and infect the pet eating it or those handling it if they don't wash their hands. Tapewormsroundworms, and coccidia are just a few parasites humans can contract from mishandling raw meat.  

Viruses

Bacteria and parasites aren't the only risks when handling uncooked meats; you could come in contact with viruses too. In fact, noroviruses are some of the most common food-borne illnesses.

Any ready-to-eat food can become contaminated with norovirus from improper handling or poor sanitation practices at food plants and grocers. Norovirus is transmitted via feces and vomitus, and even microscopic traces are enough to contaminate meat and infect the people who come in contact with it.

What are the benefits of raw diets?

The American Veterinary Medical Association are staunch opponents of raw feeding due to the potential for food-borne illnesses, cross-contamination, and nutritional deficiencies.

While a complete and balanced raw diet can have some benefits for some dogs and cats, most vets — including member of Wag!'s licensed veterinary team Dr. Linda Simon MVB MRCVS — say that the potential risks far outweigh the benefits.

Here are some reasons pet parents forgo vet advice and choose to raw feed their pets:  

  • You know precisely what your pet is eating. There's no guesswork with raw diets. If you're feeding your dog beef cuts, that's exactly what they're getting. You don't have to worry about hidden ingredients or allergens listed under generic names. 

  • No preservatives or by-products. Low-quality kibble often contains fillers, by-products, and artificial preservatives, which aren’t ideal for a healthy diet. With raw meat, you don't have to worry about your dog eating preservatives, fillers, or meat by-products.

  • High in protein and fatty acids. Raw diets are high in protein and fatty acids, which can help build muscle mass and keep your pet’s coat glossy.

  • Low-carb. Many parents choose raw feeding to help their pets lose weight. Raw meat has no carbs but still packs plenty of calories and protein to help your pet stay full. 

  • Grain-free. Unlike most commercial kibble, raw meat has no grains and may help pets with food allergies or sensitive stomachs

  • Minimal processing. Most commercial pet food manufacturers use high-temperature cooking methods, which can destroy essential micronutrients. Raw meats undergo minimal processing so the nutrient profile remains intact.

two brown paws on each side of a white bowl filled with meat and vegetables

Raw feeding safe practices

Raw feeding carries serious risks for humans and their pets if not done correctly. But there are some things you can do to keep you and Fido safer, like practicing good hygiene and proper food handling techniques, as well as taking steps to prevent cross-contamination. While these measures can significantly reduce the risk of food-borne illness, they do not completely eliminate the possibility.  

Here are some do's and don'ts of raw feeding:

  • Handle the raw food carefully. Wash hands regularly before and after handling meat or utensils used to prepare the meat. It's also a good idea to use gloves and dispose of them after prepping your pet's meals. 

  • Sanitize your workstation and utensils too. After preparing raw meat, wash any dishes and knives you used with hot soapy water, or sanitize them in the dishwasher. Keep your prep area clean by disinfecting the counters with a food-safe cleaning product like chlorine dioxide. 

  • Keep raw meats away from ready-to-eat products. Cross-contamination can happen with any food, but ready-to-eat foods like fruit and salad are the most dangerous since people rarely cook or wash them before eating. For this reason, experts urge people to keep meats, and their juices, far away from ready-to-eat foods. 

  • Never wash raw meat. Washing meat does not get rid of bacteria; however, it does greatly increase the risk of cross-contamination. 

  • Store raw food properly. Store your pet’s meals in airlock containers away from ready-to-eat foods and freeze until you're ready to use them. If Fido doesn't finish their bowl, refrigerate leftovers and dispose of them by the best-by date.  

  • Don't kiss Fido's face. We know those puppy dog eyes are irresistible, but refrain from smooching your pet if they're on a raw diet. If your dog goes in for kisses,  wash the area where they lick with warm soapy water.

  • Don't let raw meat exceed 40 degrees. Temperatures between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal for bacterial growth. Keep meat in the fridge or freezer until it's time to serve and dispose of leftovers after 4 hours at room temp.     

  • Never serve your dog expired meat. Toss any meat that is past its best-by date — the same goes for meats with discoloration or a funny smell.      

  • Stick with store-bought meat. The AMVA advises against giving your pet meat from hunted animals since there's no telling what bacteria or parasites the meat may contain.

  • Wash your pet's bowl after each feeding. Wash your dog's bowl after every meal, or use disposable plates to prevent bacterial growth or cross-contamination.

  • Take precautions with treats too. Dried and freeze-dried treats, like pig ears and liver morsels, are usually dried raw and carry the same risks as raw meat. To be on the safe side, handle these the same as you would raw meat.

Meeting your pet's nutritional needs and handling raw food correctly is essential for your health and your fur-babies. If you have questions about raw feeding, use Wag! Vet Chat to chat with a veterinary professional about your pet's needs and the pros and cons of raw feeding.


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