Discover more from Healthy Pets
A Hidden Source of Bacteria Most Pet Parents Ignore
It's the fourth most germ-laden item found in households with dogs and cats, but when asked, 88% of survey respondents don't take this important step to protect themselves and their pets.
A recent survey of 400 dog owners’ habits around feeding their pets and cleaning pet bowls revealed that only a third wash their hands after feeding their dog, and only 12% wash their pet’s bowls every day
Despite learning the importance of washing hands with soap both before and after feeding pets, and washing scoops and bowls with hot water and soap after every use, only 8% of survey respondents said they intended to adhere to such cleaning protocols long-term
A small 2011 study of 22 family homes revealed that pet bowls are the fourth most germ-infested item found in households with dogs and cats
All pet food bowls, including those used for kibble, should be washed with hot, soapy water after each use, primarily to safeguard the health of human family members
18-gauge stainless steel, contaminant-free porcelain, or glass food and water bowls are a much better choice than plastic bowls
Because pet food can carry pathogens, including E. coli and salmonella, potentially causing serious illness in an immunocompromised person and a bad case of diarrhea in a pet, recently, researchers at North Carolina State University surveyed over 400 dog owners to determine how they go about feeding their pets and cleaning up afterward; they also swabbed pet food bowls and dishes for bacteria.1
The result? According to the research team, pet owners need to be better educated about pet food handling and hygiene "to minimize bacterial contamination of dishes, especially for high-risk populations." Less than 5% of those surveyed were aware of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines on safe handling of pet and human food, and many weren’t following them at all.
Disconcerting Survey Results
The FDA recommends washing your hands with soap both before and after feeding your pet and washing scoops and bowls with hot water and soap after every use.2 According to the NC State survey:
Just 33% of dog owners wash their hands after feeding their dog
12% wash their pet’s bowl every day; 22% wash it once a week; 18% wash it every three months or longer; some don’t wash it at all
"Just the fact that so many people didn't even know about it is unfortunate," study co-author Dr. Korinn Saker, a professor of clinical nutrition in the College of Veterinary Medicine at NC State, told HealthDay.3 She believes pet food packaging should carry safe-feeding information to raise awareness.
"I feel like the pet companies should step up," she said. "They have so much information on their label."
Knowing Better Doesn’t Always Lead to Doing Better!
As I mentioned earlier, the researchers also swabbed dog dishes (a total of 68, belonging to 50 pet owners) to check for the presence of bacteria. They divided the pet parents into three groups and requested that Group A follow the FDA’s pet food handling guidelines. Group B was asked to follow FDA guidelines for both pets and people; Group C followed no guidelines.
A week later, the research team again tested the dogs' dishes. They observed that compared to Group C bowls, bacteria levels had decreased significantly in the bowls of groups A and B. They also noted that washing bowls with hot water proved more effective than using cold or lukewarm water.
Dr. Aaron Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, N.Y. (who wasn’t involved with the study), told HealthDay that the key to avoiding problems for the people in your pet's life is simply to wash your hands after handling pets, their food, and their dishes. He noted that while most healthy people won't experience issues even if they come into contact with the bacteria, those who are immunocompromised should be more cautious.
The best way to clean your hands is to use soap and water and scrub vigorously for about 20 to 30 seconds, and don’t forget to clean under your nails, especially longer nails. Interestingly, even though the pet owners in groups A and B learned the guidelines for safe feeding of pets, only 8% said they were likely to adhere to the cleaning protocols long-term.
"I thought that that was unfortunate to get that kind of response," researcher Saker told HealthDay. "It may take us doing a follow-up study that actually identifies the pathogenic bacteria concentration in these bowls based on how they are or aren't washed and cleaned to get people to change their minds. But people are people, I guess. If it didn't affect them, it's not something that's going to change their behavior."
Pet Food Bowls Are No. 4 of Top 10 Germiest Items in Kitchens
An earlier “germ study” conducted in 2011 by the NSF (National Sanitation Foundation) asked 22 families to swab 30 everyday household items and submit the swabs so they could be measured for levels of yeast, mold, and coliform bacteria (a family of bacteria that includes salmonella and E. coli.)4
While many people assume the most germ-infested spot in the home is the bathroom, the NSF study showed that most of the top 10 germiest items are found in the kitchen, with pet food bowls coming in at number 4.
My guess is that in most cases of homes with grubby pet bowls, dogs and/or cats are fed kibble (which, it goes without saying, I never recommend unless it’s the only way your pet can eat, financially). Those pet parents may not realize that while dry food doesn’t leave the same obvious mess behind as canned and raw or fresh food, it’s just as likely, and even more likely in some cases, to be contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, or other types of bacteria.
So, while the bowl may look clean after your pet eats his dry food, to safeguard the health of human family members, it’s just as important to wash kibble bowls, as it is to wash bowls used for moist diets.
It’s also important to recognize that healthy dogs and cats have a much higher tolerance for bacteria in food than humans do. In fact, their digestive systems are specifically designed to deal with considerable amounts of both familiar and foreign bacteria — the type of bacteria they would encounter when eating wild prey.
There are two reasons carnivorous pets can handle a heavy bacterial load: stomach acid and bile. Their stomachs are naturally so highly acidic there aren't many organisms that can survive it. Dogs and cats also produce a tremendous amount of bile, which is both antiparasitic and anti-pathogenic. If the stomach acid doesn't kill a pathogen, chances are the bile will.
How Often to Wash Your Pet’s Food and Water Bowls
The experts recommend washing food bowls after every meal, regardless of what type of diet you offer your pet. Food bowls should be washed with hot, soapy water after each meal, and water bowls should be wiped dry before refilling, and thoroughly washed every couple of days or more often as necessary.
Not only does leftover food attract its own bacteria, but the microbes that normally live in your dog’s or cat’s mouth and saliva can be transferred to leftover food and moisture in the bowl, creating an ideal environment for growth.
The list of potential food bowl pathogens is a long one. According to Dr. William Burkholder from the Center for Veterinary Medicine at the FDA:
"What kind of bacteria grow in the bowls depends on factors like the environment, exposure and oral hygiene of the animal, but possible examples include Staphylococcus aureus, Pasteurella multocida and different species of Corynebacterium, Streptococcus, Enterobacteria, Neisseria, Moraxella, Bacillus and, less frequently, Salmonella and Pseudomonas."5
Some of these bacteria pose a potential danger to family members, especially to the very young, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems. That’s why it’s so important to wash your hands with soap and water after handling your pet’s food, and pet food bowls.
The Type of Pet Food and Water Bowls You Use Is Important
Plastic food and water bowls are probably the most popular with pet parents, but I’m not a fan. While plastic bowls are inexpensive and convenient, they’re also impossible to thoroughly sanitize, and in addition, as the plastic begins to break down it can leach toxic chemicals into your pet’s food and water.
Bacteria and oils can also get trapped in the peeling plastic, potentially causing skin irritation or worse. Some dogs and cats can develop allergies to the dyes and materials in plastic bowls, and they’ve also been linked to tear staining. In addition, aggressive chewers have been known to gnaw their bowls into small pieces and swallow them.
I recommend stainless steel, porcelain, or glass food and water bowls for your pet, but even those options have some disclaimers. BPA-free plastic bowls can be used in a pinch when you’re traveling with your furry family member or in other temporary situations, as long as you clean it thoroughly after each use and replace it at the first sign the plastic is degrading.
Buying 18-gauge stainless steel is important, and preferably through a company that has done third party purity testing; it’s shocking, but even stainless steel has proven to be contaminated, as demonstrated by the Petco metal bowl recall several years ago.
Some porcelain can contain lead and others are not approved for food products, so make sure you buy good quality porcelain made for food use from a company you trust. Pyrex or Duralex glass bowls are my favorite, as they’re durable and nontoxic, unlike other cheaply made glass products that may contain lead or cadmium.
Healthypets Disclaimer: This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian or doctor. Dr. Karen Becker cannot answer specific questions about your pet's medical issues or make medical recommendations for your pet without first establishing a veterinarian-client-patient relationship. Your pet's medical protocol should be given by your holistic veterinarian.