Aug. 9, 2010 -- Many of us consider our pet cats and dogs so much a part of the family that we share everything from couch space to kitchen space. It seems the spaces we share may harbor bacteria hazardous to our health.
A new study published Monday in Pediatrics suggests that some young children of pet owners may get salmonella poisoning just by touching surfaces that come into contact with dry cat and dog food.
Researchers analyzed a national database of foodborne illness cases from 2006 to 2008 and found that some salmonella outbreaks in some children originated from pets fed dry foods in the kitchen.
"It looks as though the children were around the food bowl, handled it, played with it, maybe played with the water in the water bowl and it was that kind of association that led to the transmission of salmonella," said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. "It would appear that the little children didn't eat the pet food, but I would question what parent would admit to that in a questionnaire."
The released research comes at the heels of a voluntary recall issued by the Food and Drug Administration on Iams Veterinary Dry Formulas, and certain Eukanuba dry foods for possible salmonella contamination. Proctor & Gamble Pet Care, manufacturer of the recalled foods, declined comment on the recall and referred ABC News to the FDA's press release for information on the recall.
"For years you've been hearing about the risk of raw diets, but now we know there's the same risk in processed foods as well," said Dr. Marty Becker, veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital.
From the Factory to the Food Bowl
Salmonella contamination usually begins in the factory where pet food is made. According to ABC News senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, after the dog or cat food is processed, it is sent to a special room where the food pellets are coated with flavoring to make them taste good.
"Because this room is moist, it's a perfect environment for salmonella to grow," said Besser. "And that salmonella can live on those food pellets for months.
How Dry Pet Food Poses Salmonella Danger to Young Kids
Dr. Tony Johnson, clinical assistant professor at the Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine, said the overuse of antibiotics on both human and pet foods has given rise to stronger cases of bacteria like salmonella that are more difficult to destroy.
"There's a host of bacteria that are laughing at our efforts to eradicate them," said Johnson. "There needs to be awareness with people on when antibiotics should be used and when they shouldn't."
From the factory, the food is packaged, sent to supermarkets and eventually bought by pet owners. "When you feed your dog or cat, it can get on your hands and, if you're not careful, into your body," said Besser.
Johnson said salmonella can already be found in many dogs intestines. So watching a dog's reaction to the food is not a good indication on whether or not the food is contaminated.
"We do see some dogs where they do get sick from it, but there is some where it's just part of their normal make up," said Johnson. "If the pets aren't showing critical signs, then you can't even use how your pet is feeling with how to react."
Keeping Fido's Food Out of the Kitchen
Many experts said proper handling and storage of pet foods may prevent illnesses in some children. In fact, it may be as simple as keeping the pet food out of the kitchen, said Johnson.
"Certainly keeping pet food out of human food preparation areas will help," said Johnson.
But it may not be just the food's proximity to humans. According to Schaffner, young children should also stay away from the food bowl.
"The important thing is to try to keep very young children, those toddlers and those crawling around on the floor, away from the pet's food bowl," said Schaffner.
Schaffner also advised continually washing hands, washing the pet's food bowl, and washing out the water bowl after contact with any type of pet food to prevent illness.
"This is another little thing where we have to remember good hygiene is important," said Schaffner.
Don't Let Salmonella Danger in Pet Food Interfere With Enjoying Your Pet
Johnson said he doesn't "think that there's a grave danger" for children if they are taught the proper way to handle their pet's food.
"I want people to still be able to enjoy their pets and think of them as their family," said Johnson.
Becker agreed, saying the overall health and wellness benefits of having a cat or dog far outweigh the possible risk of contamination.
"Reduce the risk, keep the pet," said Becker.
Quick Tips to Stay Safe From Salmonella
On "Good Morning America," ABC News Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser also shared the following tips for keeping yourself and your family safe from salmonella:
Wash your hands after any contact with dry pet food.
Instead of reaching into the pet food bag with your hand or the food bowl, use a scoop that you use only for this purpose.
Keep pet food in a secure container -- not just in the bag, where it can spill out on the floor -- and away from human food.
While most pet owners feed their pets in the kitchen, consider doing it somewhere else, away from where you eat.
If you have a cat, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning the litter box, because salmonella will live even after it passes through your pet.