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Most U.S. dog owners don’t follow hygienic practices when preparing pet food

Given the recent focus on how pathogens can be transmitted from animal to human populations, veterinary nutritionists from the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine wondered about the extent to which pet owners follow the FDA guidelines for the hygienic handling and preparation of pet food. They decided to carry out a survey of pet owners to understand the common practices used when handling pet food and pet feeding bowls.

Pet food and dishes need to be handled in such a way that the potential health risks for dogs and people alike are minimized. Young children are particularly prone to picking up infections as their immune systems are not fully developed and they frequently put their hands in their mouths. In addition, people with compromised immune systems may be susceptible to pathogens from pet foods and dishes that are not handled hygienically. 

Because of these factors, the FDA has issued guidelines and protocols for safe pet food and dish handling procedures. This information is available online but is rather limited. In order to understand the impact of these guidelines, Dr. Emily Luisana of North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and colleagues, conducted a survey of 417 dog owners. The results of this research are published today in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

The researchers visited dog owners at their homes and collected data on pet feeding and food dish hygiene. They also swabbed 68 food dishes to test for the presence of bacteria. They then assigned the owners of these 68 dishes randomly into one of three groups.

In the first group, the owners were asked to follow the FDA guidelines for pet food and dish handling for the following week. In the second group, the owners were told about these FDA guidelines but were not specifically instructed to do anything different when preparing their dog’s food. Owners in the last group were asked to follow specific hygiene guidelines extrapolated from the Human Food Code when preparing their pet’s food during the following week. After the week had passed, the researchers tested all 68 food bowls again for bacterial contamination. 

The researchers found that less than five percent of the dog owners surveyed had heard of the FDA guidelines on pet food and dish handling. Only 34 percent of owners washed their hands after preparing dog food and 33 percent prepared their dog’s food on the same surface that was used for the preparation of human food. Of the households surveyed, 36 percent of them included immunocompromised individuals or children under the age of 13. 

In the follow-up analysis of food bowl contamination, the bowls of owners who had followed the FDA or the Human Food Code protocols all showed a reduction in bacterial concentrations. In comparison, there was no reduction where owners had not specifically been instructed to follow more hygienic procedures. In the follow-up survey, only eight percent of pet owners who had followed the guidelines for more hygienic practices said they would continue with these practices in future. 

Dog feeding dishes and water bowls have been found to harbor potentially harmful bacteria in a number of previous studies. Bacterial species such as Escherichia coli, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium difficile have all been recorded in samples from pet feeding dishes or water bowls. A 2006 study found that pet food bowls had the ninth highest levels of bacteria out of 32 household items analyzed. This supports the idea that dog dishes can be a source of bacterial contamination in a household setting.

The researchers concluded that, although their study was small, the application of FDA or Human Food Code guidelines resulted in a decrease in the bacterial contamination of pet feeding bowls. They found that washing bowls after use reduced bacterial levels and that washing with hot water was most effective. 

The experts feel that pet owners need to be better educated and informed about hygienic ways to prepare, handle and store pet food. These guidelines should be written and need to be accessible on dog food packaging and in the veterinarian’s rooms in order to reach as many pet owners as possible.  

“I hope this study makes pets happier and healthier!” said lead author Emily Luisana. “Pet owners should know that pet food bowls can harbor bacteria and that recommendations exist for minimizing that risk.”

“Most pet owners are unaware that pet food bowls can be a hidden source of bacteria in the household. Knowing how to mitigate this risk and practice proper pet food storage and hygiene may make for a happier, healthier household,” concluded the study authors. 

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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