Food Safety and Your Dog

Learning proper dog food handling and storing can save your dog's life

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Dogs in Review

Whether you feed commercial dog food, home cook your dog’s meals or feed a version of a raw diet, odds are good that a food recall affected you to some extent in 2011.

Since the 2007 pet food recall due to melamine contamination, most dog lovers have been acutely aware of the potential for contaminated dog food. The Food and Drug Administration has fairly strict guidelines for foods made in the US, but in that case, an imported ingredient brought the contamination. The melamine recall was exceptional both for animal illnesses and deaths as well as the scope of the problem — even reaching into human foods.

Most pet food recalls are due to the detection of Salmonella or aflatoxin on routine screening. Salmonella is a bacteria that produces a toxin that can cause gastrointestinal distress in animals and people. Salmonella is generally found on animal products as evidenced by the many pig ear chew recalls in 2011.

Young or elderly dogs, as well as any dogs that are immunocompromised, are most at risk. While most show dogs are in their prime, they are under the stress of campaigning that could make them somewhat susceptible.

Aflatoxin is a mold toxin made by Aspergillus molds. This mold tends to grow on grain crops before harvest and can contaminate the grains. Corn is a favorite host but the mold can grow on virtually any grain crop as well as peanuts. Aflatoxin causes liver damage.

Currently pet foods (and human foods, so the recent ground beef recalls are relevant here as well) are tested and screened by the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. Virtually all of the pet food recalls for 2011 caught the contamination before any pets became sick. Many problems were caught before foods made it to retail shelves and most problems were quickly contained. Not so with the ground beef recall.

A source at the CVM was asked if pet foods truly are experiencing an increase in contamination or are we simply getting better at detecting contamination. The source felt that more sampling was being done and detection methods have improved, so testing is picking up smaller amounts of contamination and doing so faster.

The FDA has announced a plan to up the testing of commercial pet foods for Salmonella in 2012. The intention here is to minimize the chances of any human illness from Salmonella, but it serves the purpose of keeping dogs safer, too. Food, treats and supplements, but not canned foods, are all to be included in these screenings. Special emphasis will be put on checking products that are handled by large retailers such as Petco, PetSmart and Wal-Mart.

How can you keep your dog’s food safe? There are different strategies for home cooking, raw and commercial foods. For any diet, use clean bowls. Wash food and water bowls after each meal.

For home cooking, you need to follow the same food hygiene you do for your own food. Dogs do have a greater ability than humans to handle contamination (probably due to their scavenger history) but even so, clean counters and utensils are important. Use the dishwasher to truly sanitize these.

Foods should be thoroughly cooked, using a meat thermometer if need be. Meats should be kept frozen or refrigerated until used. Any leftovers should be refrigerated after preparation and feeding. For travel, foods need to be handled carefully — preferably kept frozen or at least chilled until fed.

When you purchase meat, whether to cook or feed raw, you should keep track of the batches. Sometimes store receipts will track this or you may need to copy down the information off the package when you use the meat. It pays to have a hard copy file or digital file on your computer with the data entered. Yes, it takes a minute but that minute could be worthwhile, both financially to get a refund and in terms of the health of your dog, if there is a recall.

Raw foods, especially meats, need to be handled carefully as mentioned above. Keep meat frozen or refrigerated until you use it. This can be tricky when traveling. If you repackage meat, be sure to wrap thoroughly and date the packages. You may need to resort to purchasing fresh meat almost daily instead of relying on a cooler and ice. Developing alternative protein sources such as hard-boiled eggs is another way to handle this. 

Many dogs do well on a combination diet with some kibble along with either home-cooked or raw foods. For commercial foods, there are more suggestions. Start by only purchasing products with intact packaging. Dented cans or torn bags could be contaminated post manufacture and would not have been screened again. Read the fine print on treat and food bags. Foods made in the US are generally safer than those made in China.

Many people choose to store dog food in airtight containers. Either keep the food in its original packaging inside the container or cut off the codes and lot numbers from the bags when you dump them. Without that information you won’t know if food you purchased is involved in a recall. The information can be kept in a hard copy file or copied onto a digital file in your computer. You could simply cut the information section off the bag and stick it on the refrigerator with a magnet with the date of purchase written on.

Purchasing smaller bags of food may be slightly less economical, but that way if you get a contaminated batch, you will not have fed so much. Mixing flavors and mixing brands can be a good idea to dilute any possible contamination. Just check with your veterinarian or a nutritionist to be sure you are maintaining a balanced diet with the mixing and matching. Store your dry food in a cool, dry location. Bags that get damp should be discarded.

The bottom line is that pet food in the US is actually safer than human foods in many countries. By following proper handling and taking some precautions you can avoid many food-related problems. 

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