You know, I can’t tell you how many times I had to sit in an exam room with a weeping child, explaining to them over the listless puppy in front of them that I was so sorry, the test came back for Salmonella and the prognosis was grim. Wait, that’s parvo.

Salmonella, while demonized in the media to a bogeyman of epic proportions, is mostly known as an irritating member of the Diarrhea Duo, a pest more than a demon scourge of canines. And yet, with every recall, the anger, the indignation, and the fear rolls in, predictable as a rush on flu vaccines after the first case of the winter.

I get it. Trust me, I get it. The 2007 melamine recall put us all on edge- and rightly so, I might add. That was a terrible event, one I hope never to see happen again in my career.

There are several factors that went into that event that made it extra awful, mainly the scope, the deception on behalf of the suppliers, and the number of deaths assumed to have resulted from the whole debacle. There is no excuse for deliberately adulterated ingredients to make their way into the pet food supply, ever. And now here we are, with yet another Salmonella recall- on a food I’m currently feeding Brody. And am I indignant? Disappointed? Filled with righteous fury?

Salmonella typhimurium, courtesy NIH.

No, not really. But in order to get that you have to understand the ubiquitous nature of Salmonella.

Salmonella: The scourge of veterinary medicine (except when it isn’t)

Let’s put it this way: if dogs were a preschool, Salmonella would be that runny nose snotty kid always wiping their fingers on everything. It’s just kind of there, it’s not there on purpose, but it just kind of happens, and you manage it the best you can. You can peruse pubmed and the various studies on the topic if you want- in fact, NC State is doing research on the very topic of the prevalence of Salmonella in dogs as we speak- the older papers are all over the place, finding 11% to 66% incidence in dogs. A 2002 Canadian paper on asymptomatic dogs fed the BARF diet found 30% of those dogs tested positive for Salmonella, and, as BARF enthusiasts themselves regularly point out, they are not, as far as anyone can tell, keeling over dead of Salmonellosis in any discernible numbers. This despite the fact that in this study, 80% of their diet did test positive for the bacterium.

So why does the CDC hunt it down like Snape chasing Harry through the halls of Hogwarts? Are they that concerned about the comfort and well being of our canine companions? (hint: no.)

They care because people get Salmonella. The final tally from last year’s Diamond incident was that 49 people were sickened, 10 hospitalized, none dead. The CDC stats, when they have them available, average out to about 35 or so people a year getting documented cases of Salmonella from pet food. 35 out of the 42,000 reported cases a year. That’s 0.08% of the documented cases being due to pet food, for those keeping score. The actual number of Salmonella cases, most of which are never reported (how many of us had one of those “OMG I ate bad Taco Bell” mornings and never reported it?) is estimated to be about 29 times higher. Death rate from acute Salmonellosis? Less than 1%, actually quite a bit lower than even that unless you are very young ,very old, or immunocompromised.

I know you all love infographics. I’m too cheap to hire a graphic designer, but nonetheless I made you all a pie chart because I know everyone loves a good pie chart.

We swim in a sea of Salmonella

We know, we know and this is well documented, that raw meat is a common source of Salmonella. That is why my mother freaked out, loudly and with great horror, if there was any chicken juice on the counter not promptly blown into oblivion with bleach. “SALMONELLA!” she would scream, wielding Lysol like Excalibur against the foe. But as we’ve seen with a recall from The Honest Kitchen earlier this year, it’s not just meat that can be the problem- their recall was actually due to a batch of parsley that tested positive. It’s in the raw ingredients for pet food and the raw ingredients for our own foods. Peanut butter. eggs. chicken. milk.

So what’s the deal? If you want to make a list of the affected brands in the last 5 years, it goes far and wide. Almost everyone has been affected at some point or another. Is it that every single manufacturer, regardless of their commitment to quality control or lack thereof, is just gross and negligent? In certain cases, like the Diamond recall, where there was a well documented failure to maintain adequate facility standards at the manufacturing plant over several months, I would say yes- they screwed up royally.

But in most cases? I would argue that many manufacturers- at least the ones who do it all in house and are transparent enough to invite journalists in – follow very high levels of quality assurance. The testing process in a plant following adequate GMPS is thorough; the production process is extremely effective at getting rid of pathogens during the cooking process. And even with that, even with everything done properly, sometimes Salmonella happens, just like sometimes you get an infection post-op even when your surgeon followed meticulous sterile procedures.

In yesterday’s Natura case, we are talking about one single sample that tested positive.

So now what?

If you’re looking for an excuse to stop feeding commercial food and this seems like a convenient one, go forth with my blessing. Please find someone who knows that they are talking about (I love the nutritionists at BalanceIt) to help guide you.

If you, like the vast majority of the pet owning population including myself, have decided to take your chances with this vile scourge, this baleful bacterium, I give you this long and complicated process to minimize your risks of contracting Salmonella:

1. Wash your hands after touching pet food.

2. Don’t buy your kid a live chick for Easter.

Source: CDC (

3. Avoid pot pie, mind the beef, don’t eat cookie dough with raw eggs (screw that, I’ll take my chances), don’t be old.

P.S. I thought this goes without saying, but just in case there was some ambiguity: good lord, if your food lot gets recalled, yes, do return it. That’s what recalls are for.

The end!


Disclaimer: I’m not a CDC public health expert, nor do I pretend to have the vast reservoirs of knowledge that many food safety pros do. That being said, I’m going out to dinner tonight with my good buddy, veterinarian, MPH and CDC employee Dr. Carrie, so I can pass on any questions to her you might have. 

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  • melF

    Great post. I know I have been pretty vocal in the past about some of the pet food recalls, but I tend to get more upset about the recalls that contain the more deadly ingredients that can kill a dog than ones like these. I just prefer pet food companies be up front about a serious recall. This one was due to one bag of cat food and it is not as serious – as you pointed out, salmonella is everywhere.. Kudos to the company for recalling it and for being honest and up front about it.

    I prefer to feed my dogs food that has been made in the USA, but even The Honest Kitchen was recently recalled due to salmonella. It happens. Thanks for brining some levity to the conversation.

    • I guess that is where I hope I can help people differentiate that all recalls are not the same. Deliberate tainting? bad. Equipment duct taped together? bad. Occasional Salmonella on a piece of parsley or chicken? Gonna happen to everyone at some point.

  • Amy Sunnergren

    The egg issue is funny as recently my body has decided that it will not stand for scrambled eggs in the morning, even if I eat a slice of toast first. I first started by feeling a little sick, but now can not keep them down. However I have never had a problem with raw cookie dough. Pot Pie? I missed that one. I will have to do some research. I really learn a lot reading this, and not all having to do with animals! (Particularly as to reproductive issues.)

  • Excellent post! Nice to see some Bayesian (comparative) stats presented, to put the actual degree of risk to our dogs into perspective. In addition to the understandably increased sensitivity to recalls after the 2007 tragedy, I often wonder if we are also subject to a phenomenon known as the “availability heuristic”. This refers to thinking something is much more dangerous and of a much greater risk to us than it really is, simply because we read about it often in the media (and, “gasp”, the media exaggerates things!). Because every single salmonella recall now receives national attention (regardless, as you rightly point out, of how serious the infraction is on the part of the company or supplier), the perception of risk is highly inflated. Two other examples of this within the dog world are attitudes towards pit bulls (i.e. the belief that all pit bulls attack and kill children), and, years ago, the belief that pregnant women should get rid of their cats because of a risk of contracting toxoplasmosis. Just a thought. Love, love your blog – thanks for all that you do for animals and their people!

    • “availability heuristic”. Yes, yes. That is excellent. Thank you for all this.

  • carolinegolon

    I’m with you on the cookie dough issue.

  • Donna S.

    Thank you, thank you, Dr. V for putting this into the proper perspective. I’ve been trying to squash some of the biased info fed to us by the common media, but was armed with fewer facts at hand and even worse, without your sense of clarity. I’ll be sharing your post freely.

  • Lisa K

    The only thing I disagree with is the samonella and meat. A lot of samonella recalls lately have involved produce. It just doesn’t get a lot of airplay because the AR groups don’t jump on samonella infected papaya like they do on samonella infected eggs.

  • In your article, you mostly address dogs and salmonella. What about cats? I have one of the 6 lb bags of recalled EVO cat food. My cats are all healthy adults between the ages of 6 and 11. If they were your cats, would you be comfortable feeding them that bag, or would you throw it out? (Thank you)

    (I eat the cookie dough too. In fact, I’ll make chocolate chip cookies just so I can have some cookie dough!)

    • If I knew I had a recalled bag- verified with actual product codes, I’d replace it, because it seems like the prudent thing to do and my kids often feed the pets. I transfer my foods to a sealed bin after I open the bags, though, so I have no way of knowing if they are recalled. Since everyone’s doing fine, I’m not worrying about it.

  • I actually totally agree; there are things way scarier than salmonella. When I see a recall I go look and then say with relief – oh, just salmonella.

  • I’ll tell you where you lose me — even though I’ve been feeding raw since 1986 and you’d think a little salmonella wouldn’t be a big deal to me. This is where: Even if salmonella itself does not pose a health threat to our pets, it serves as a surrogate marker for bad food processing practices. There should not be fecal bacterial contamination of our food supply. I am not going to complacently go, “Oh, no problem, I’ll just wash my hands!” And I don’t want small animal veterinary practitioners to tell me that, either. I want them to drive their colleagues in large animal medicine INSANE until they stop enabling our broken food system.

    • I guess this is what I don’t get about what you are saying- why is it ok with raw food, but in a commercial plant it is indicative of a broken food system? If it’s present in 80% of your raw food sources, why is it a disaster if it pops up as an outlier in one sample out of thousands of pounds of food?
      There are many problems out there- trust me, I’ve read all the reports about Diamond and the machinery taped together with cardboard, and that is wrong. The deliberate contamination with adulterants, is wrong. But an occasional positive on a bacterium part of the normoflora for dogs? I have to, as a scientist, evaluate the recalls on a case by case basis and understand the purpose of failsafes, the likely outcomes, the response of the manufacturer, and in that context decide this recall is not something that panics me.

      • “If it’s present in 80% of your raw food sources, why is it a disaster if it pops up as an outlier in one sample out of thousands of pounds of food?”

        The problem is we know it is in our raw food and take steps IE cooking it to kill the bacteria. With an already cooked or ready to eat food we expect these steps to already have taken place and no further prep is needed on our side before consuming or having our pets consume the product.

        • But Robert it’s not only present in meat products that we cook. There have been salmonella recalls on salad products, prepackaged vegetable mixes, peanut butter, sugar, do a quick search. It’s not just in our raw foods.

          What bothers me is when people take the salmonella angle as an argument against raw feeding (vets especially who you would expect to have a tad more intelligent arguments at least) and pretend that kibble is the “safer” alternative as if salmonella was a real danger to dogs. Even those people who recognize that it’s more of a threat to us then the dogs we feed (how many kibble packages contain warnings for you to wash your hands after handling their product?), act as if people who feed raw to their dogs smothered that raw food all over their counters first and then licked them clean. Where is the campaign to ban all meat products from people’s kitchens because we’re all too incompetent to handle raw product and are doomed to get deathly ill if we choose to keep it in our homes to feed to our pets. The AVMA’s recent position on this issue was very disappointing.

  • Finally, a post on this issue that makes sense. Its been a day and I’m already vastly tired of having to read about people “needing a new food safe for their pets. People are crying it’s because of P&G, but the reality is salmonella is a variable that is always there with food production and 21 years without a recall is quite substancial. The Freemont plant is top notch and they make a lot of product there. Hell, while there’s no excuse for the poor factory conditions at the SC Diamond plant, the reality is Diamond makes literal tons of food for an enormous amount of companies. Not products I buy myself, but like you said, theres a difference in detection of a common bacteria and willful product manipulation. Natura as of now still makes fine products and tjis should not be a cause to drop their product line.

  • Rose D.

    A few years ago, my cat’s food had a recall. She had been acting strangely, but not sick, so we took her to the vet under fear of salmonella. My vet said much what you said, but when he checked her out, it turns out she had pneumonia! So thank you recall, I might not have found out for another few months otherwise! (She goes in twice a year.) After the meds, she was feeling much better. It was magic!

  • Don’t buy turtles or lizards either. Great fun post and full of good info.

  • It is crazy how often we are having recalls now! I had salmonella when I was 18 years old and I was hospitalized for 3 weeks because I developed aspiration pneumonia – BLECH!! We never figured out where I got it . . .and I didn’t have any pets 😉 Thanks for the honest opinion on the whole mess!

  • Greg

    Everything you say sounds very logical but unfortunately it doesn’t transfer to reality. The Diamond incident you refer to is exactly why these co-packing plants with no quality control require greater regulation. Diamond packs food for more than a dozen different companies, including Kirkland dog food for Costco. To the average person, Salmonella can be a few days of discomfort but in infants, young children, and the elderly, Salmonella can cause serious complications. This is because they only need to ingest a small number of bacteria and more importantly, contamination through inhalation of bacteria-laden dust is possible. Dry dog food, for good reason, is required to be free of Salmonella and I do not understand the logic of rewarding companies by continuing to feed their poor quality products to my wonderful four-legged companions and at the same time put my family and friends at risk. I’m curious as to whether Dr. Carrie shares your views on public health issues. Furthermore, I would suggest making your disclaimer more visible. All it takes is for one of your readers to listen to what you say, continue using contaminated dog food, which leads to a serious incident thar could have easily have been avoidable. In the end, if consumers stopped buying products from companies that care more about profit, then it would mean the system is working. Lastly, I find it disturbing to see a health professional suggest to readers that it’s no big deal to continue to use any product that poses a serious health risk.

    • You’ve managed to list a bunch of points I don’t argue with and still miss the bigger picture, which is to put it in the context of overall relative risk. I’ve never said we shouldn’t continue to demand rigorous testing, I never said “go on and use bad dog food that’s been recalled!” and I in fact agreed Diamond’s recall was the result of negligent facility management. My point here was that we have such a knee jerk reaction to the word ‘recall’ that we can’t differentiate between the melamine recall, the Diamond recall, or the latest Natura recall. They were all very different.

      Have you worked in a veterinary clinic? This is what tends to happen: say a product from Natura, which lists all their sourcing right on the website, runs their own plant, and submits to the highest level of voluntary USDA inspection and oversight, gets recalled due to one product sample testing positive (as it should.) A person may go on the internet and say, wow, all big pet food companies are evil, I’m going to run to the health store where I buy my dog’s supplements (you’re a fan of those, correct?) and ask the salesperson there what to do. So they come home with a trendy, ‘all-natural’ diet with no animal feeding trials that was manufactured at an outsourced plant with duct taped air vents and has never had a recall because they’ve only been in business for a year. Or they make their own food based on a recipe they found on the web and end up with a dog with taurine deficiency cardiomyopathy. And they get 0157H7 because, being scared of chicken, they use ground beef instead. Yes, I would prefer my clients return the recalled bag and continue to purchase from a company with transparent sourcing, animal feeding trials, and in house production facilities.

      It’s about context.

  • KolchakPuggle

    What a logical post. I worked at a chicken factory in the HUMAN food chain for close to five years (a year of that in the quality control chain) and frankly, salmonella just doesn’t scare me anymore. You’d be amazed how often it’s in the human food chain and how few people actually use and understand proper food handling.

  • Great funny read putting things in perspective. Seriously, of all things Salmonella recalls don’t bother me all that much, there are far far worse things in pet foods to concern yourself about.