There is always a mass concern with pets getting sick from harmful pathogens in raw diets. “Will my pet get sick from harmful E. coli bacteria?” There are many varieties of E. coli. Many are harmless and are naturally present in dogs and cats while specific strains can cause illness in immunocompromised animals.
What is E. coli?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Escherichia coli (E. coli) is a bacteria found in the environment, foods, and the intestines of humans and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless. However, some strains can cause extreme sickness in humans and animals.
The illness humans get from E. coli is called Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) infection. STEC infection can last 5 to 7 days, with symptoms appearing 3 to 4 days after ingesting foods or drinks containing the bacteria. Although, symptoms can appear as early as 1 day and as late as 10 days after exposure. STEC infection can lead to diarrhea, urinary tract infections, respiratory illness, and pneumonia. Rarer and more severe strains of STEC infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), a type of kidney failure which can lead to permanent kidney damage or even death.
The CDC estimates STEC infection causes 265,000 illnesses, 3,600 hospitalizations, and 30 deaths in the United States every year. A person can be exposed to STEC infection by ingesting contaminated food or water, or by contact with an infected person or animal.
Symptoms of STEC infection include:
Our entire world is made up of bacteria, including our bodies. There are many different strands of bacteria. According to the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S.A., there are as many as 1 trillion different types of bacteria. Most strands of bacteria are harmless and even beneficial!
Pathogenic bacteria, however, are the bacteria that can cause diseases. These bacteria produce different effects with humans and animals. These bad bacteria attack host cells within the organism and produce various symptoms.
Pathogenic E. coli strains are referred to as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC). Shiga toxins have the potential to cause disease in animals. Approximately 200 serotypes of E. coli produce Shiga toxin and more than 100 of those serotypes have been linked to disease. Pathogenic bacteria can be prevented with sterilization, disinfectants, and cooking food to temperatures above 73 °C (163 °F).
Healthy dogs and cats have the necessary tools to withstand STEC infection. However, if a dog or cat has a compromised immune system, it is possible they could contract a STEC infection.
Newborn puppies and kittens are susceptible to an E. coli infection due to poor health and nutritional status of the bitch (a female, pregnant, and lactating dog) and queen (a female, pregnant, and lactating cat), lack of colostrum after birth, and an unclean birthing environment. These risk factors are easily minimized by ensuring the optimal health of the bitch and queen during pregnancy, birth, and nursing while maintaining a clean birthing and living environment.
Weak Immune System
An adult dog and cat with a weak immune system is susceptible to E. coli. Infection can be contracted through contaminated water, food, living environment, or contact with another infected animal. These risk factors are easily minimized by reducing exposure to contaminated animals, maintaining a clean living environment, and using safe food handling methods to reduce cross-contamination.
These two variables are dependent on one another. Young puppies and kittens do not have a fully developed immune system and immune function may decline with old age. Therefore, careful consideration should be taken for young and elderly pets, but the chances are small when a healthy immune and digestive system is maintained.
E. coli infections are the result of cross-contamination of food or coming into contact with an infected host.
The environmental condition and butchering methods at meat processors play a major role in E. coli contamination. When livestock and poultry are butchered, the contents of the intestines can spread bacteria if inappropriate methods are used when processing meat products. Always purchase and feed meat from a reputable supplier.
Improper Food Handling
If improper food handling practices are not used, then the risk of cross-contamination increases. Always practice safe food handling methods when preparing raw food for pets. For more information regarding food safety and raw feeding, check out our Raw Feeding Food Safety 101 blog.
Dogs and cats naturally shed E. coli in their stool where pet parents are exposed to pathogens when the waste is cleaned up. Touching raw products also increases the risk of cross-contamination. Poor sanitation, such as pet parents not washing their hands, increases the risk of cross-contamination.
Bodies of water can become contaminated with E. coli in areas with exposure to human or animal waste. Always provide fresh, clean water for hydration and avoid contact with unknown bodies of water with a high risk of contamination.
Much like Salmonella, it is just as essential to practice the following methods to avoid any cross-contamination. When pet parents voice their concerns about giving their dog raw meat and the becoming sick from any foodborne illness, the first thing to ask the parent is:
Do you prepare raw meat to cook for yourself or your family?
Unless the person is a vegetarian or vegan, they usually answer “Yes.” Although humans do not eat a diet of raw meat, we should still consider the best basic food handling practices when preparing and cooking raw meat. According to the CDC, there are four methods of food safety when cooking in the home – clean, separate, cook, chill.
The cleaning recommendations from FoodSafety.gov apply to raw feeding. Maintaining a clean and tidy space is step number one in preventing cross-contamination and foodborne illnesses.
Wash hands for 20 seconds with plain soap and warm running water immediately after touching raw meat, bones, and organs. Always sanitize surfaces and utensils after each use. Using dirty knives and cutting boards is unsanitary and further risks cross contamination. Wash fruits and veggies but not meat, poultry, or eggs!
Contrary to popular opinion, washing meat is not recommended. This further spreads bacteria and increases cross contamination on other surfaces, utensils, and food.
Portions of the separation guidelines from FoodSafety.gov apply to raw feeding. The concepts can be adapted to preparing raw pet food.
Do not prep raw pet food while cooking or preparing a human-grade meal. This is a preventive measure against cross contamination. Some raw pet food products are not human-grade, an example is unprocessed green tripe. It is best to prepare raw pet food separately from preparing a human-grade meal.
A small section of the chill recommendations from FoodSafety.gov applies to raw feeding. The guidelines can be adjusted to storing raw pet food.
Store raw muscle meat, bones, and organs in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent spoilage. Always dispose of any raw product if it has spoiled. Keep all raw pet food products separate from all other foods in the fridge to prevent cross-contamination.
Supporting the digestive system and gut flora promotes healthy immune function. An estimated 70% to 80% of immune cells are located in the digestive tract. Beneficial bacteria found within the colon is an additional protective measure against ingested pathogens.
Probiotics support the colonization of healthy bacteria in the colon and help fight against pathogens. Probiotics can be provided in a few different ways, including feeding fermented vegetables, kefir, or dietary supplements.
Fiber is another key factor in promoting a healthy digestive system. Fiber resists enzymatic digestion in the small intestine and is fermented in the colon by the beneficial bacteria. Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs) are produced as a byproduct of fiber fermentation and provides the colon wall with energy. Fiber is easily available in green leafy vegetables, berries, and fur/feathers from whole prey.
"NOT ALL BACTERIA IS PATHOGENIC."
Ronny LeJeune, CertCN, CPDT-KA, CCC
E. coli is a common bacteria in pet and human lives. Dogs, cats, and humans alike naturally carry E. coli bacteria. Regardless of the diet pets are fed, whether it is a processed diet or fresh raw food diet, dogs and cats naturally groom their genitals and anus, which is the main source of E. coli bacteria.
Always remember to follow basic food handling safety guidelines and feed foods to support a healthy immune system. Dogs and cats can contract STEC illness from E. coli-contaminated foods. However, it is important to remember a dog or cat with a healthy immune system has a low chance of becoming sick from E. coli.