While the world focuses on the pandemic, another public-health crisis is brewing: antibiotic resistance. According to the UN, illnesses that are resistant to human medications could cause up to 10 million deaths a year by 2050 — that’s three times as many as were caused by Covid-19 in 2020. And our beloved dogs’ food could be contributing to the crisis.
Testing Dog Food for Dangerous Bacteria
Researchers in Portugal recently tested 55 dog foods — including dry, wet, and raw-frozen varieties — for Enterococci, a type of bacteria that lives in human and animal guts but can cause dangerous infections if it spreads to other parts of the body. They found that more than half of the samples contained Enterococci — and that 40% of the Enterococci they found were resistant to multiple drugs. A quarter of them were even resistant to linezolid, an antibiotic that is reserved as a “last-resort” drug for extremely resistant infections, and which the UN sees as a critical weapon in the future fight against antibiotic resistance.
So: we know that dog food is harboring some nasties. But where did the researchers find those nasties? Which types of dog food are most likely to contain dangerous pathogens? The non-raw foods weren’t perfect — three of those samples contained resistant bacteria. But that’s nothing compared to the raw varieties: stunningly, all of the raw dog food samples contained Enterococci that were resistant to multiple drugs. Researcher Dr. Ana Freitas told the American Kennel Club that she was particularly surprised by the high rate of linezolid resistance in raw samples. That’s right — 50 percent of the raw samples contained bacteria that could evade even the drug of last resort.
How Big a Danger Is Antibiotic Resistance in Raw Dog Food?
OK, but how likely are these bacteria to make you or your dog seriously sick?
First, the good news: most healthy dogs will not get sick from food that contains antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
But as clinical veterinary nutritionist Dr. Lisa Weeth points out, if dogs have consumed contaminated food, even if they don’t show signs of illness, “they still shed it in their environment, so people in the household can get ill.” What might that look like? In one typical scenario (though far from the only one), Dr. Weeth told me, “Dogs walk outside to poop and then they come inside and they lick their butts and they lick their paws” — thus spreading bacteria around the house — “and they lick the kid.”
This is by no means a far-fetched idea. In fact, humans have already gotten sick from pathogens in dog foods. As Dr. Weeth points out, the most recent recalls for raw-meat products — whether that means pigs’ ears, bully sticks, or full meals — “have happened because humans in the household have gotten sick.”
How Can Dog Owners Avoid Getting Sick From Their Dog’s Food?
So if your dog eats a raw diet, what can you do to keep them and you safe?
Dr. Weeth recommends that all dog owners avoid the raw-food diet completely — a conversation she and her staff often have with new clients seeking to keep their pups well nourished.
But does ruling out raw food make it harder to nourish your dog? Will they miss out on key benefits? Not at all, Dr. Weeth reassures anxious dog owners. Many dog owners are committed to the raw diet because they saw such a benefit to their dog when they switched from processed food to raw — most commonly, they report the dog pooping less, having to eat a smaller amount to stay full, having a shinier coat, and being noticeably more energetic.
But Dr. Weeth points out that these benefits all come down to switching from a processed diet such as kibble or canned food to a fresh one, which is easier to digest and typically has a higher fat content, which keeps their coats lush and means they have to eat less to stay full. Studies have found that in terms of both digestibility and palatability, raw dog food is not superior to cooked, fresh food with the same nutritional content. “Going from a canned or dry diet to a less-processed fresh-food diet is a distinction, but then cooked versus raw — there’s none,” Dr. Weeth told me.
Meaning that the easiest way to avoid getting sick from your pup’s dinner is to simply avoid raw dog foods — and that doesn’t have to mean losing out on any nutritional benefits.
And of course, even after you ditch the raw food, make sure to wash your hands carefully with soap and water immediately after dealing with any dog food or dog poop, since there’s also a chance, albeit slim, that non-raw foods could contain pathogens.
Combatting Antibiotic Resistance on a Broader Scale
There’s also a bigger question here: why do so many meat products contain antibiotic-resistant bacteria? The answer comes down to the food-production system, in which many animals reared for consumption are pumped full of antibiotics, allowing bacteria to mutate and become resistant. And we’re not just talking about animals raised to feed dogs.
“Dog food is mainly made of animal subproducts, so they derivate from the same animals we eat, but from parts that are not approved for us,” Dr. Freitas points out. “Of course this means that those animals, even the ‘good’ parts [which are consumed by humans], may also contain these bacteria, and in fact, we find high levels of resistant bacteria in animals for food production.”
Avoiding raw-meat diets will go a long way toward keeping dog-loving families safe — but as Dr. Freitas points out, the food-production system itself needs to be addressed to avoid a ballooning public-health crisis. “Authorities should review the production circuit of dog food, from the selection of raw materials to manufacturing and hygiene practices,” she says. Let’s hope that message reaches far and wide.