Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Campylobacter has been a hot topic lately in the raw feeding and pet owning world. There is certainly much misinformation out there that is starting to cause a scare and make the average pet owner very weary of feeding their companion a species appropriate raw diet.
So, what is campylobacter?
Campylobacter can be a bacterial infection. There are 37 species and subspecies with most being non-pathogenic (7) however when pathogenic or disease causing, symptoms such as diarrhea and vomiting are present. It is common to source raw chicken as the origin of the bacteria, but it can also be found in other birds, beef, pork, fish, rodents, fleas (2), cow’s milk, fruits, vegetables, contaminated soil or water sources that were contaminated with feces and finally direct contact with infected feces. Campylobacter is not limited to raw sources, homemade cooked diets in a study involving dogs was the primary cause for infection. (8) After ingestion of the bacteria, it must travel to the small and large intestine to multiple. This is the source of infection in contaminated animals and why it is advised not to feed intestines in a raw diet(2). This of course can only occur if the stomach acid doesn’t neutralize and kill the bacteria first(5.) Many factors influence infection including “immune status of the host, bacterial virulence [severity], gene expression, and other factors.”(2) If infection occurs, symptoms starts showing 2-5 days after exposure. Complete recovery is typically about one week and doesn’t usually result in long term effects. However, shedding in the feces can occur. Shedding means that the bacteria is released from the body in the feces and has the potential to reinfection or infect other animals that eat or walk through the waste. Therefore, it’s important to practice proper cleaning and disposal of feces to prevent further spreading. (1)
Prevalence in cats and dogs in 2013 for one study were 9.86% and 4.81% respectively. Most of these animals lived on farms and had “access to small water basins, accidental source of food and had contact with wild birds, poultry or their feces”(24) The majority of other studies show reports using shelter cats and kennel dogs versus the average pet owning home or raw fed companion animal.
In cats, dogs and ferret’s infection is very rare and typically only is seen in those under 6 months of age. (7)
Outside of infection campylobacter is naturally found in the gastrointestinal tract, therefore detection of campylobacter species can be found in feces without there being an infection. (7) All this information is not to scare you even more. There is more than just looking at what campylobacter is, where it comes from and symptoms. There is some further context and other factors to consider in this situation as well.
Cats, dogs and ferrets are carnivores. Dogs are facultative carnivores meaning that in DIRE need they will scavenge for tubers and berries, but primarily consume and thrive on meat organs and bones (11). Cats (9) and ferrets (10) on the other hand are obligate carnivores. This means they are OBLIGATED to consume and thrive on fresh meat, organs and bones.
Their pH levels indicate their diet type. Cats, dogs and ferrets maintain a stomach acidity of 1-2 pH when on a species appropriate diet. This is highly acidic and is capable of completely breaking down not only meat, organs, bone and utilizing their nutrients effectively, but also destroying and neutralizing bacteria. In comparison, the human stomach pH is 1.5-3 pH. This may not seem like a huge difference, but each jump down in pH number results in an acidity that is 10 times more acidic. For example, 1 pH is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 2. It should also be noted that a pH number lower than 7 (neutral) increases in acidity, while pH numbers higher than 7 are more basic/alkaline or less acidic. If the diet is loaded with carbohydrates like fruits, veggies and grains, the pH level is less acidic, about 4-5 pH. This reduces the ability of the stomach to not only breakdown bone, but also reduces the body’s ability to neutralize and kill bacteria. This is one of many reasons that mixing raw with a commercial diet can result in illness and disease or even the reason why urinary tract infections can be common. (4)
The Digestive tract is short. Even in large companion animals such as a German Shepherd which could stand as tall as a human, the digestive tract is only about 1.5-3 times the length of their body (The human digestive tract is about 30 feet long). This means that food stuff moves through the body quickly and is eliminated fast. In combination with the high stomach acid and short tract, there is little time for bacteria to colonize and cause illness. If it does there are other factors involved that have resulted in an impaired body. Human Error is a huge factor when it comes to problems with raw feeding. There are many sources:
The Meat Industry. A majority of human grade meat is factory farmed. Animals of all kinds are cramped into small enclosures and are often walking in their own feces, urine and even dead animals. These are not healthy conditions in any shape or form. With the hundreds of thousands of these animals packed together, no wonder illness and disease colonizes and spreads rapidly. (12,13,14) The point here, is sourcing is essential.
The Pet Food Industry. Most believe pet food is better and contains no bacteria or viruses because it’s cooked (when compared to raw). That is far from true. Simply this is evident by the many pet food recalls from salmonella and listeria on a regular basis. The pet food industry most often uses meats that are labelled unfit for human consumption. This includes meat that is downed, disease dying or dead(14, 15, 16, 18) . Meat is used that is denatured with dyes, charcoals and chemicals. Your companion most often is NOT receiving top quality, choice cuts of meat.
As of January 2018, 18 commercial pet foods and treat recalls occurred (in most cases almost 3 per month) 4 included salmonella contamination and 1 due to listeria. 17 If you were curious, the others were a combination of pentobarbital (the euthanasia drug), metal contamination, elevated thyroid hormones and chemical contamination.
The FDA. Unfortunately, one culprit of raw food being bad and containing harmful bacteria and viruses comes from such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Often, they claim raw food is the sole cause of bacterial contaminations. They however, leave out information pertaining to dry foods, the largest market of pet foods. The presented data on the FDA’s own website includes very misleading numbers. For example, in the last five years alone just for Salmonella contamination, based on reports released to the press by the FDA, there have been 23 dry food recalls, 14 commercial raw food recalls, and 26 treat recalls but if one looks at the statistics and information provided by the FDA, recalls can include all Lot Codes, all UPC’s, all package sizes and all expiration dates prior to a certain date. Furthermore, one company can own multiple brands such as Mars who doesn’t just make candy bars but also owns California Naturals, Cesars, EVO, Eukanuba, Greenies, Iams, Innova, Nutro, Pedigree, Royal Canin, Sheba, The Goodlife Recipe, Whiskas and Temptations meaning hundreds of products can be affected. This is all under ONE recall claim!
According to the enforcement reports available through the FDA, consumers can view under the Product Distributed Quantity, how much or how many pounds of food was distributed and needs to be removed from the shelves. The market for raw pet food is much less than that of its dry food counterpart and does NOT include home prepared diets therefore the reality of the report numbers for dry pet food is extremely low, while those of the raw are fairly accurate. Based off of the Product Distribution Quantity in the span of the five years mentioned above 19,407,827 pounds of dry food was recalled and only 17,685 pounds of commercial raw. In short this actually means that although the FDA is not demanding salmonella testing for dry pet food, dry pet food actually has more recalls and salmonella contamination than raw commercial pet foods (again these figures do not include home prepared raw diets).(3)
Preparation Method. Ground meats harbor more bacteria. When meats are ground, surface area increases leading for a larger breeding ground for colonization. Furthermore, when the product is ground this allows for the bacteria to now be mixed throughout the meat.(19) It is essential that raw feeders either feed whole prey if they can or at least chunked meats and organs.
Storage. If meat isn’t properly stored (which includes freezing ingredients and spare meals when not in use, defrosting meals in the fridge as well as storing them in the fridge) (20, 21) it can easily colonize bacteria. If meat is already contaminated, the more grows and once that is fed to your companion the load may be too much for the immune system to handle. In the case of the most common infectious campylobacter, temperatures must be higher than 42 degrees Celsius for it even grow.(7) It is also essential that food regardless of type (dry, wet/canned, freeze dried, dehydrated, raw) is not left to sit out. This not only goes for you but the manufacturers and producers of the meat sources you are receiving.
Weakened Immune System. If the carnivorous body cannot handle bacteria there is a systematic problem going on. The common reason is the immune system is impaired in some way often from a source of stress(7,23). This can include vaccinations, steroids and other pharmaceutical medications/drugs6, surgery(21), a big move to a new home, a disease or illness already being harbored, genetics and an inappropriate diet. With heightened stress, the body is not capable of handling even smaller loads of bacteria.
Take away points
Campylobacter is a bacteria, that includes 37 species and subspecies with more being non-pathogenic (or non-disease causing).
Raw chicken is not the only source of infectious campylobacter.
Most infectious cases were due to poor sanitation and exposure to contaminated feces.
Cats, dogs and ferrets are carnivores designed to handle bacterial loads and are generally effective at destroying bacteria.
Poor practices in the meat and pet food industries has led to illness and disease.
Proper storage is essential to prevent bacterial growth.
A weakened immune system can result in system malfunction and the body not being able to handle bacterial contamination resulting in illness and disease.
So what can you do to avoid campylobacter?
Feed a species appropriate raw diet to ensure high stomach acids for neutralizing bacteria and to ensure a high immune system.
Do NOT feed the intestines of any animal if completely avoidable.
Properly store food ingredients and meals in the fridge and freezer.
Know where you are sourcing your ingredients including how the producer is storing and processing the ingredients.
Minimize stress which may include slow introductions to new family members, human or animal as well as new homes/environments, not over vaccinating, limiting harsh antibiotics and pharmaceutical drugs when not necessary and be aware around times of surgery.
Cutting off access to locations containing free standing water and animal feces including your companions own which means taking proper action to properly dispose of waste.
Wash your hands especially after picking up waste or petting other animals, as well as after food preparation.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Campylobacter (Campylobacteriosis).”Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 Oct. 2017, www.cdc.gov/campylobacter/faq.html.
2. Lew-Tabor, Alicja E. “Overview of Enteric Campylobacteriosis.” Merck Veterinary Manual, Merck , www.merckvetmanual.com/digestive-system/enteric-campylobacteriosis/overview-of-enteric-campylobacteriosis.
3. Thixton, Susan. “Let's Get the Facts Straight FDA.” Truth about Pet Food, Truth about Pet Food, 10 Apr. 2016, truthaboutpetfood.com/lets-get-the-facts-straight-fda/.
4. Beasley, DeAnna E. et al. “The Evolution of Stomach Acidity and Its Relevance to the Human Microbiome.” Ed. Xiangzhen Li. PLoS ONE 10.7 (2015): e0134116. PMC. Web. 3 Jan. 2018.
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10. Ferret Nutrition Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, Volume 17, Issue 3, Pages 449-470 Cathy A. Johnson-Delaney
11. Feldhamer, G.A. 1999. Mammology: Adaptation, Diversity, and Ecology. McGraw-Hill
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13. Publications, Inc. Ogden. “What You Need to Know About The Beef Industry - Homesteading and Livestock.” Mother Earth News, 2008, www.motherearthnews.com/homesteading-and-livestock/beef-industry-zmaz08fmzmcc.
14. Nestle, Marion. Pet Food Politics the Chihuahua in the Coal Mine. University of California Press, 2010.
15. Food and Drug Administration. “FDA GUIDANCE FOR INDUSTRY 68 .” FDA, 19 Oct. 2010, www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry.
16. Food and Drug Administration. “GUIDANCE FOR INDUSTRY QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS BSE FEED REGULATION.” FDA, July 1998, www.fda.gov/downloads/AnimalVeterinary/GuidanceComplianceEnforcement/GuidanceforIndustry/ucm052392.pdf.
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18. Smith, Van. “What's Cookin'? Ever Wonder What Happens to Dead Animals? A Look at Baltimore's Only Remaining Rendering Plant Explains By Van Smith.” Dirty Popcorn, 24 Apr. 2013, goodnessgracioustreats.wordpress.com/2013/04/24/whats-cookin-ever-wonder-what-happens-to-dead-animals-a-look-at-baltimores-only-remaining-render-plant-explains-by-van-smith/.
19. United States Department of Agriculture. “FSIS.” Ground Beef and Food Safety, 29 Feb. 2016, www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/meat-preparation/ground-beef-and-food-safety/CT_Index.
20. United States Department of Agriculture. “FSIS.” Freezing and Food Safety, 15 June 2013, www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/safe-food-handling/freezing-and-food-safety/CT_Index/!ut/p/a1/jZFRT8IwEIB_DY9dbw7J8G1ZYtiUTYJK2Qsp7NYt2dqlrU759RZ8EQNK9LefVud6UFZbSQ_L0R3DZK8vZwLyYbWMDEn8aQ5lP_HpLsdZE_xDGEy1sHrP8AsuBK_8KK4D8_vaLAjZ7Hc0GLntuaNLJSlAm0hEszoDaUVUqVxPAK7SepM4SUyNalzjEyDFbc1m2jRQO1oh7d3J6SX6YlMXPm0SWEFXtDh9FfhuJ1mwHM_SLIB8_Bs4M7Zv4PJcXOOiVdvjH60juQ1C16HGCjVq7027cG1tb-5GMIJhGDyhlGjR26luBOeUWhlL2SlJ--6F7R-jGTRP3So00RewPo06/#3. 21. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/shared/PDF/Refrigeration_and_Food_Safety.pdf 22. Dąbrowska, Aleksandra M., and Robert Słotwiński. “The Immune Response to Surgery and Infection.” Central-European Journal of Immunology 39.4 (2014): 532–537. PMC. Web. 4 Jan. 2018.
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