New policy hopes to protect pet therapy patients from potential bacterial infections

A new policy implemented by Alberta Health Services (AHS) says pets that are fed a raw protein diet will no longer be able to participate in various therapy programs due to the risk of salmonella and listeria contamination.

The policy went into effect in December and impacts several local pet therapy programs. The raw diet remains somewhat controversial, but many feel the policy is too strict due to a lack of hard evidence connecting raw food with bacterial infection in human beings.

Turner, a 14-year member of the Pet Access League Society (PALS), received a letter in October informing her of the new AHS policy. Turner has fed her three dogs a raw protein diet for eight years, favouring it over processed dry kibble or recall-prone imported treats.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” says Tommy-Rae Turner. “I don’t know what they’re basing it off of. Plenty of people with auto-immune diseases are dog and cat owners, and cats – whether or not they are fed a raw diet – are carriers for numerous diseases.”

A raw protein diet exclusively uses animal protein like chicken, pork and even fish. Some pet owners have embraced the diet for several years but it has slowly gained popularity recently due to an increased number of recalls and health scares among commercially prepared dry food.

“My dogs would get so excited if they even heard the word ‘visit,’ and the difference that it made when you walked into a visit, people were smiling and the dogs were so happy. I’m going to miss that.”

-Tommy-Rae Turner, pet ownerIn a study that spanned October 2010 to July 2012, the Food and Drug Administration Centre for Veterinary Medicine tested over 1,000 samples of different types of pet foods for foodborne illnesses such as salmonella and listeria.

Raw pet food was included only in the second year of the study, but of the 196 samples screened, 15 tested positive for traces of salmonella and 32 for listeria. These numbers were significantly higher than those of other pet foods tested in the study, such as jerky-type treats, semi-moist and dry foods.

Turner feeds her pets raw food because she wants to avoid processed dry food. She mentions that she always uses precautions by feeding her dogs after their therapy sessions and spraying their mouths with colloidal silver to kill any bacteria that may linger.

“I’m just upset that we are no longer welcome at something we used to love doing. My dogs would get so excited if they even heard the word ‘visit,’ and the difference that it made when youTommy-Rae Turner poses with her three dogs, Carter, Arnie, and Ty in Fish Creek Park.

Photo courtesy of Tommy-Rae walked into a visit, people were smiling and the dogs were so happy. I’m going to miss that,” she says.

But PALS maintains that the policy will not be reversed, saying that it’s better to be safe.

PALS is a local pet therapy program with close to 290 volunteers who, with their pets, visit a variety of locations like seniors’ homes, hospitals, and young offender centres.

“We were aware of research being done that was very pertinent to PALS regarding pathogens in therapy dogs in Alberta and Ontario,” says Diana Segboer, executive director of Calgary’s PALS. “It can be transmitted not only through the fecal matter but also their saliva and even their dander.”

Segboer says that PALS’ decision to exclude raw-fed animals from their programs is in accordance with AHS policy and does not reflect any stance by PALS on the benefits or harms of a raw food diet.

“Given that we deal with an immune-compromised population, it’s important that we take into consideration the best interest of those people,” said Segboer.

All three of Turner’s pets have been fed a raw food diet for several years.

Photo courtesy of Tommy-RaeNevertheless, some veterinarians have spoken out in favour of raw protein diets. Dr. Corrine Chapman, a Calgary veterinarian with 17 years of experience, explains that dogs and cats are biologically designed to catch, kill and immediately consume their prey.

“Their teeth are made for tearing, shearing, and ripping. They have extremely acidic stomachs with a pH designed to kill any harmful bacteria that might be inside, and they have very short guts that allow them to metabolize everything they consume very quickly and efficiently,” says Chapman.

“In order for someone to be contaminated, they would have to be handling an animal’s waste directly – which is just not something we see happening.”

PALS says that if pet owners want to take their animals off the raw diet and pass a check in 90 days, their pets are welcome to participate in the therapy programs. Volunteers will also be required to sign an affidavit claiming their animals do not have access to any raw food.

mmackay@cjournal.ca