One of the greatest concerns many people have about switching their dogs to a raw diet is the fear of bacterial infection, either in themselves or their pets. News reports of people dying from E. coli and salmonella poisoning have no doubt fanned the flames of that fear. But most people who have successfully transitioned their dogs to a raw diet report no problems are delighted with their dogs’ health and appearance. The secret, advocates say, is in good food handling practices.
Dog owners who neglect safe handling techniques are certainly more at risk of infection from any pathogens (a list of the usual suspects is discussed in great detail in “What Evil Lurks Within,” page 9) that happen to be present in raw meat. This is especially true of children, whose immune systems are immature and inexperienced, and people with compromised immune systems. But keeping your meat safe and your kitchen clean is not exactly rocket science, folks! Anyone can learn to do it.
Keep it cool
Perhaps the most critical factor in handling raw meat is attention to refrigeration. Keeping foods refrigerated slows the growth of any organisms that happen to be present. “Huge numbers of bacteria can result from providing pathogenic bacteria ideal reproductive temperatures for only short time periods,” Dr. Dunn says. “Generally, as long as some moisture is present, and the temperature range is 50 to 90 degrees, pathogenic food-borne bacteria have a reproductive bonanza.”
This means that frozen meat should always be defrosted in the refrigerator – NOT on the counter or in your sink. Defrosting at room temperature means that the outside sections of the meat are at an unsafe temperature while the inside sections are still defrosting. Read and follow the safe handling instructions on the meat’s label.
Refrigerate or freeze raw food if you don’t plan to feed it immediately. Vegetable mixtures can be refrigerated for three to five days, but meat mixtures probably shouldn’t be refrigerated for more than 48 hours. “Safe length of storage time is highly variable because time, temperature, type of organism, moisture levels and numbers of organisms originally present all interact to impact the safety of each food item,” Dr. Dunn says.
Larry A. Bernstein, VMD, is the owner of Natural Holistic Pet Care in North Miami Beach, Florida, and a passionate advocate of diets built on feeding raw meat. Dr. Bernstein recommends that all meats are kept frozen following purchase, and thawed on the day they are fed to the dog. Freezing is said to have a detrimental effect on the nutritional quality of meat, but the difference is not significant. And freezing is less detrimental to nutritional quality than the heat from cooking. “Feeding food fresh is great,” Dr. Bernstein says, “but if feeding it after it has been frozen allows you the flexibility to feed raw food diets more often, then the benefits far outweigh any deterioration that might happen in the freezer.”
When thawing meats in the refrigerator, put them on the bottom shelf or drawer, so that any blood or juices don’t drip on any other food in the refrigerator.
Many dog owners are under the impression that freezing can kill any potentially harmful organism that may be present in the meat. According to Dr. Dunn, “Freezing is not very effective in killing any pathogenic bacteria already present on the food product. Freezing will only impede any further growth of those bacteria already present. Parasites, if present, must be frozen at temperatures so low that household freezers probably will have no effect on killing any parasites such as Trichinella.”
Keep it clean
Safe handling practices recommended by experts include washing hands before and after touching raw meat; careful cleansing and disinfecting of dishes, utensils, cutting boards, grinders, and other equipment used in meat preparation; and proper storage of prepared food.
“Almost all foods we purchase from the grocery store have bacteria present on or in them,” says T. J. Dunn Jr., DVM, director of veterinary services for PetFoodDirect.com and ThePetCenter.com. “Only specific strains of specific bacteria have the potential to cause disease and then only when their numbers develop to fairly high levels. If pathogenic bacteria are present when the consumer purchased the food and the consumer ignores safe handling procedures, those organisms may proliferate to a point where their numbers may cause disease in humans. The organisms may proliferate on utensils, containers, cutting boards, washcloths, anywhere there is organic material upon which to grow.”
Thorough cleaning with hot, soapy water is the best way to prevent problems. It’s a good idea to use a disinfectant for items that are porous or difficult to clean, including cutting boards and food grinders. Dr. Bernstein recommends using a disinfectant compound or a little bleach in dishwater, or running items through a dishwasher. “And there are some new [disinfectant] wipes for the kitchen that we use to wipe down the cutting board,” he says.
Be careful with knives, as well, Dr. Bernstein says. “You really need to clean them off well. You don’t want to put good knives in the dishwasher, but you want to soak them in something.”
Be aware that chopped or ground meat is more likely to become contaminated than whole pieces of meat. That’s because bacteria such as E. coli generally contaminate the surfaces of a food product. Mixing, chopping and combining other ingredients can distribute the organisms throughout the food. Under certain temperature or moisture conditions, this could enhance the organism’s proliferation in the food.
“I don’t recommend chopped or ground meat unless it’s done fresh – you grind it at home,” Dr. Bernstein says. “Grinding expands the surface area so there’s more room for bacteria to grow, and there’s more oxidation of the meat. When oxygen gets in contact with the meat, it causes deterioration, so the more you open up the surface area, the more you speed up the deterioration. So feed meat in chunks, little cubes, or cut it up and freeze it. And if you’re going to grind it, grind it right before you feed it.”
Whose hands should stay off?
If you want to be really careful, shouldn’t you wear rubber or plastic gloves when handling raw meat? Maybe, maybe not. If you have a cut or sore on your hands that’s open to infection, gloves could certainly be a good idea. Ditto for people with compromised immune systems. In general, though, healthy people don’t need to go to such extremes, Dr. Bernstein says.
When raw meats are being handled and/or fed to the dog, a couple of types of people deserve special consideration: people who have any sort of immuno-suppressed condition and children (especially infants and toddlers). Since these people are at greater risk of infection with any pathogens, they must be prevented from coming into contact with the dog’s raw food and dirty dishes. This entails “following the trail” of any potentially harmful organisms far beyond casual cleaning.
For instance, if you have a toddler in the house, it’s not enough to prevent her from touching the dog’s food bowl; you have to imagine that a dog who just finished eating a meal that contained raw meat might immediately drink from his water bowl, potentially transferring a certain amount of the theoretic pathogen to the water. Toddlers should be prevented from having any sort of contact with the dog’s water bowl, too.
Some people feel that’s going a bit bit overboard. Nancy O. Johnson of Vancouver, British Columbia, suffers from a compromised immune system herself but says she doesn’t take any extraordinary precautions when it comes to feeding a raw diet to Harpo, her Chinese Crested. “I buy only from reputable butchers, and I wash everything with soap and water, although I use the dishwasher on occasion. Neither I nor my dogs have ever had a problem related to feeding raw meat.”
But others say, “Better safe than sorry!” Among the safety precautions taken by Joanne Nash of Los Altos, California, are using separate cutting boards for the dogs’ raw food and for anything she and her husband eat. “We use antibacterial dishwashing detergent for all dishes, cutting boards and so on, with separate sponges for dogs and people. We always wash the dog bowls after a raw meat and bones meal. And I use disposable plastic gloves when I am preparing a batch of meat and vegetable mix. I’m also more conscientious about washing my hands after I’ve been mixing or feeding the raw food.”
Cleaning the meat
What about disinfecting the meat itself? A number of sources suggest using grapefruit seed extract (known for its disinfectant qualities) or food-grade hydrogen peroxide to kill bacteria before serving meat. It can’t hurt, but it’s not really necessary, say raw-diet advocates.
“Over the years, people have advocated using grapefruit seed extract (GSE) or food grade hydrogen peroxide to sterilize or decontaminate the meat – you marinate it before you feed it,” Dr. Bernstein says. “I think you’re dealing with personal preference here. We’ve fed our dogs raw foods for years and hundreds if not thousands of patients have done it, and some use GSE or peroxide and some don’t, and across the board, I really can’t think of a problem.”
Betty Lewis of Amherst, New Hampshire, occasionally sprays her counters and cutting boards with a dilution of grapefruit seed extract, but she doesn’t use the product on the meat itself. “Dr. Ian Billinghurst (a well-known proponent of raw diets for pets) feels that dogs are capable of dealing with a fair amount of bacteria that is normally present in their environment,” Lewis says. “If we sterilize their food, we do them a disservice by not fostering this natural capability. Then, if they’re exposed to a larger than normal amount of bacteria, they may not be able to overcome it.”
Nash had trouble finding grapefruit seed extract or food-grade hydrogen peroxide when she first starting feeding raw food to her Cavaliers and Dalmatians. Determined to feed her dogs raw meat anyway, she experimented with another method of disinfection: Dipping raw meat in boiling water.This was so messy and time-consuming, Nash says, she gave up the practice after the first few times – and has had no problems with her dogs.
Whether you detoxify meat is strictly a matter of personal preference, Dr. Bernstein says. “There’s a certain fear factor involved, so if you’re nervous, go ahead and use the grapefruit seed extract or the hydrogen peroxide. I usually recommend that with poultry anyway; for some reason I’m more cautious with poultry. If you’re really scared about feeding raw meat or if your animal is reticent to eat it, cook it a little bit. After you become a little less fearful, cook it a little less. After a while you find that it’s not worth bothering to cook it because they love it the other way, and then you’re well on your way.”
Shelter from the stuff?
All of these safety procedures help protect us from illness, but what about our dogs? They’re the ones eating the raw diet. What kind of protection do they need? Not as much as you might think.
“I don’t have much concern about the dogs getting sick (from eating raw meat),” says Richard H. Pitcairn, DVM, Ph.D., of the Animal Natural Health Center in Eugene, Oregon and author of Natural Health for Dogs and Cats, one of the earliest books advocating a raw diet for pets. “Dogs are carnivores and they have experience for millennia eating raw animals. I haven’t seen any problem myself in my practice.”
Pitcairn explains that dogs have much stronger stomach acids than people do, so they are far more capable of battling any pathogens that may be present in the meat. Their intestinal tracts are also quite a bit shorter than ours, giving bacteria less of an opportunity to take hold and flourish. “I think dogs are quite well adapted to handling meat; in the natural state dogs will eat meat that’s decayed,” Dr. Pitcairn says. “They bury it and dig it up days later, stuff that would probably kill us.”
“The potential for disease is related directly to the individual idiosyncrasies of the organism, the numbers and types of organisms impacting the individual, and the individual’s physical state of health,” says Dr. Dunn. For example, he explains, a free-roaming dog that is accustomed to scavenging meals is usually more acclimated to the presence of potentially pathogenic bacteria in its digestive system than, say, an apartment-dwelling Poodle.
That’s why it’s important to introduce a raw diet gradually, over a period of five to seven days. Don’t follow the example of one of Dr. Bernstein’s clients, who introduced her 18-year-old dog to a raw diet by giving him four different kinds of meat in large quantities. “The dog did get diarrhea, but that’s because the owner wasn’t being sensible or moderate,” Dr. Bernstein says. “I think that’s the only case where I’ve seen an older dog have a negative reaction, and we can understand why that happened.”
Dogs that shouldn’t eat raw
Can dogs with impaired immune systems eat a raw diet? Many holistic veterinarians believe that a raw diet can benefit the immune system, but they caution that such a dog should only eat a raw diet under veterinary supervision.
Animals that are weak or predisposed to illness might have problems, especially if there’s an overwhelming bacteria load in the meat, Dr. Bernstein says. A veterinarian who has experience with raw feeding should help the owner supervise this dog’s diet. Dr. Bernstein finds that feeding raw foods can be very beneficial to such an animal, but stresses that in such a case, you have to be even more careful with the cuts of meat, the quality, and the freshness.
Puppies, too, should be introduced gradually to a raw diet. Wait until they’re weaned, and then start mixing in small quantities of meat gradually. “Until they’re six or eight weeks old, I don’t think their guts are really competent to handle large quantities of meat, so I would be most cautious with a young animal,” Dr. Bernstein says. “After about eight weeks, it’s probably pretty safe.”
Naturally, experiences vary. Australian Cattle Dog breeder Deb Casey of Dallas, Texas, starts feeding a raw diet to her puppies when they are four weeks old. “The puppies are the best I have ever raised,” she says. “They do not smell like dog food, and the poop is very small and firm.” Ruth Beetow of Springville, New York, also feeds a raw diet to her Norwich and West Highland White Terrier puppies and has never had a problem.
According to Dr. Dunn, when problems arise with raw diets, it’s usually due to improper handling procedures on the part of the consumer. Good sanitation, in combination with modern processing methods and regulations, are the key to successful raw feeding.
-By Kim Campbell Thornton