For most of us, food safety habits like washing our hands before preparing a meal and rinsing our plate before putting it in the dishwasher are second nature. But would it surprise you to learn that you should follow those same protocols when feeding and cleaning up after your pet?
A new study, published April 6 in the journal plus one, found that the majority of dog owners in the US do not know and do not follow the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines on safe handling of pet food and dishes. In this case, what you don’t know can hurt you. Contaminated pet food has been the source of multiple outbreaks of bacterial illnesses among dogs and humans, according to the authors.
“Pet owners should be aware that pet food bowls can harbor bacteria and that there are recommendations to minimize that risk,” lead author Emily Luisana, DVM, a veterinarian at Friendship Hospital for Animals in Washington, DC, said in a statement. .
Pet food and treats, like many other types of food, can be contaminated with harmful bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses such as salmonellosis and listeriosis, according to the FDA.
Even many veterinary professionals are unaware of the safety recommendations
According to Dr. Luisana, the idea for the study came from “water cooler type” conversations among veterinary nutritionists. “We realized that when it came to our own pets, we all had different hygiene and pet food storage practices,” she said. Recommendations about pet food safety and storage were relatively unknown, even among veterinary professionals, she added.
“Once we investigated what we should be doing, we noticed that the FDA recommendations regarding these habits were relatively few compared to the recommendations in humans and the outcome of these recommendations had not been studied,” said Luisana.
Less than 5 percent of dog owners are aware of the FDA guidelines
To find out what the average pet owner knew about pet food safety, researchers surveyed 417 dog owners. They found that less than 5 percent were aware of the guidelines and many owners did not follow many of the recommendations.
Pet food and dish handling guidelines include the following:
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before handling
- Do not use the bowl as a scooping utensil.
- Wash the plate and spoon with hot water for at least 20 seconds after each use.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds after handling food.
To better understand the effectiveness of the FDA recommendations, researchers tested 68 household dog food bowls for bacterial contamination. After initial testing, they divided the owners into three groups with different instructions for implementing the food handling guidelines.
One group followed the FDA guidelines for pet foods and dishes, one group followed those guidelines in combination with the FDA human food handling protocol, and a third group served as a control: they were briefed on the guidelines, but they could choose whether or not they wanted to change their behavior.
The researchers tested the dishes again after a week and found significantly less contamination in the dishes of owners who followed the FDA’s pet food handling guidelines, either alone or in combination with the pet food handling protocol. FDA human food, compared to proprietary dishes that weren’t asked to follow any set of recommendations.
Even after learning about safety guidelines, many dog owners are reluctant to follow them
“I was surprised that our control group did not show a reduction in bacteria counts even though they knew the FDA guidelines existed and that the bowl would be re-sampled,” Luisana said. This shows that publicizing current recommendations is not enough to instigate behavior change, she added.
Dog owners in the “guideline-following” groups also showed an unwillingness to continue following the FDA guidelines after the one-week intervention: only 20 percent reported that they were likely to follow the instructions at long-term, and only 8 percent said they were likely to follow all instructions given. This finding highlights the need for guidelines that are feasible and effective, the authors note.
Pet owners should be aware that pet food bowls can harbor bacteria and that there are recommendations to minimize that risk, says Luisana. “Although we need further study to assess the implications of our findings, I hope that veterinarians will consider the potential impact that feeding hygiene can have, for example, in cases of zoonotic disease, in immunocompromised patients,” she says.
Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can spread between animals and people.