Raw meats are known to carry harmful pathogens. We’re familiar with the requirements to keep a clean kitchen after handling raw meat. All surfaces in contact with raw meat must be disinfected and cleaned with warm, soapy water, because these pathogens commonly cause gut upsets in both people and pets. Recently, however, some veterinary researchers have begun to speculate about a link between nerve damage and feeding raw diets.

What did the researchers find?

A study conducted in Australia in 2018 recruited twenty-seven dogs suffering from a nerve disorder called acute polyradiculoneuritis (APN). Forty-seven healthy dogs were also recruited to act as a control group. The feeding history of these dogs was documented using questionnaires and they were tested for campylobacter; a bacteria which is commonly found in people with a nerve disorder similar to APN. 

The APN-affected dogs were 9.4 times more likely to carry campylobacter than the healthy dogs in the study. The dietary history of the two groups of dogs revealed that 96% of APN-affected dogs had been fed raw chicken, while only 26% of the healthy dogs had that same ingredient included in their meals.

This led the researchers to speculate that the feeding of raw chicken is a risk factor in dogs for the development of APN.

Why did the researchers target raw chicken as an ingredient?

Historically, all poultry has been found to frequently carry campylobacter in their gut. During processing, this bacteria can end up on the surface of the meat. This is why it is essential that raw poultry is cooked through to avoid food poisoning. One study found that almost three quarters of raw poultry products in the supermarket will carry detectable levels of campylobacter.

Why is campylobacter important?

In humans, there is strong evidence linking campylobacter infection to the development of a neurological illness called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS). It is hypothesised that the bacteria is able to cause an autoimmune-mediated attack of nerve tissue in its host. Because humans and dogs have very similar biology, it is likely that campylobacter would have the same mechanism of action in both.

Is poultry the only raw meat which carries campylobacter?

Campylobacter has been found in raw red meats (beef, pork, and lamb) but at much lower rates than in poultry. However, any raw meat has the potential to carry a number of different pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella.

Do I need to worry about campylobacter if the raw food I’m feeding is freeze-dried or has been frozen?

It was found that there is a reduction in campylobacter levels in raw meat after freezing and freeze-drying, but this is not a reliable way to ensure food safety! Cooking must be used to definitively get rid of campylobacter. It is recommended to cook meat to 70°C for at least two minutes.

My dog got into raw chicken, should I be worried?

If your dog eats raw chicken, the most common thing to watch out for is tummy upset. Monitor your dog for vomiting, diarrhoea, and changes in appetite. If your dog is showing signs of being unwell for more than 24 hours, an appointment to see the vet is definitely in order!

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Are there any other risks when feeding a raw diet?

A dog eating raw meat is at risk of falling ill from the associated pathogenic bacteria. Even if your dog doesn’t get sick, he will still be able to shed dangerous bacteria which puts the people he lives with at risk.

Take home message

The correlation between raw meat consumption and nerve damage in dogs has not yet been definitively proven. However, the supporting evidence and similarities in the human medicine world make it seem likely. Still, the risk of illness remains high when feeding a raw diet – even when it doesn’t cause nerve damage. Many veterinary surgeons will continue to discourage raw feeding for this reason and due to the ever-present risk to public health. 

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