Bacteria Isn’t all bad… Yes, there is bacteria in our food and that’s part of what makes it great! Let’s take some time to set the scene then talk about our pets…

Bacteria and our environment

We are living in a world where germs have been marketed as the enemy and there is no distinction between the good germs, the slightly nasty germs and the real bad guys. We’ve been conditioned to believe that the germs that exist on our hands, our kitchen cloths and our shopping trolley handles could kill us in the same way that Ebola could. So we sanitise every inch of our homes, bodies and anything else that can pose a “risk”, at all times.

But we still get sick… and often when we do… it’s nasty.

Man sitting on an office desk wiping his nose

These extreme sanitation methods are undeniably necessary in certain situations. Hospitals, surgery wards and nursing homes when patrons’ immune systems are compromised, require extra care. But for the average person on a day to day basis, germs are good! Germs are normal and they actually help prepare our immune system to fight the battles that count. It’s no different for our pets.

Bacteria and the immune system

The danger of totally eradicating germs is that when the immune system comes across a pathogen, it isn’t practiced at defending itself. Small, daily immune system challenges that come from the environment, or dare say a bone that’s been dug up after it’s been buried for a few days, are an important part of keeping our pets’ immune systems in peak shape and ready to defend against something that may actually be life threatening. The immune system is like a muscle, it needs to be exercised to function at its peak.

You may have noticed that our furry friends don’t exactly live by our “cleanliness standards” and engage in behaviours that can often leave us thinking twice about the next time we accept that loving lick on the face… but there is much to be acknowledged in this instinctive behaviour.

Husky puppy covered in mud from playing in the garden.

They sniff things, lick things and eat things that turn our stomachs, but it helps them in a variety of ways including their immune system function. They expose their immune systems to so much that it is almost always working, processing, responding and adapting to their environment.

This is great because it gives their immune system the workout it needs to defend them when they really need it!

Canine physiology and raw food

Raw food gets a lot of bad press for its pathogenic potential and it’s important to put this into context. The best way to do this is to look at the canine physiology. Whilst we can humanise our dogs as much as we like; we can dress them up and share our bed with them, it’s important to realise we can’t control their insides and they are fundamentally different to us.

They have more acidic digestive systems which can counter a wider range of pathogens more effectively. They also have shorter digestive systems where what goes in, comes in out a matter of a few hours vs. our 40 hr average transit time. What this means is that pathogens have less time to replicate and take over the nice warm breeding ground that is a living digestive system and that “germ theory” needs to be applied differently to canines/felines and humans. Our pets thrive on raw food and have the physiology to cope with it.

This isn’t a licence to condone feeding exclusively off food to our pets, but just to put their diet into context vs. how we may think about our own. There is higher bacterial counts in raw food vs. cooked food, but as long as the raw food is freshly prepared (for home raw feeders) or manufactured (for commercial raw feeders) and fed in a timely manner, this bacteria is harmless for pets in good health.

Immune system benefits of bacteria

The benefit of this is that the pets’ system becomes accustomed to dealing with a pathogen burden. Their immune system becomes used to fighting these mini-battles on a daily basis, battles that strengthen their immune system. So when the time comes that they are exposed to something potentially harmful, their immune system is primed. It’s ready to go and fight the good fight after months / years of training. They’ve got this!

Puppy licking window - probably taking in bacteria.

This approach also helps the immune system from fighting itself! The immune system is a complex creature and in the absence of these small daily challenges, finds other things to help keep itself busy… and the worst case scenario of this process is attacking the body itself. Auto-immune diseases are conditions where the immune system recognises itself as the enemy and begins to mount a response against it.

Auto-immune conditions are associated with an altered state of immunity where the body goes after itself instead of invaders and whilst the pathophysiology (or cause) of autoimmune diseases isn’t entity understood, one hypothesis (or theory) is making sure the immune system is busy dealing with the day to day insults life. Over-sanitation robs the immune system of some of this important daily exercise and may contribute to it becoming misdirected and starting to attack itself.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and for an immunocompromised pet, or a pet on immunosuppressant drugs as part of a treatment plan for a health condition, then definitely consider a lower bacterial-load diet. A fresh, healthy home-cooked balanced diet would be the gold standard in this scenario.

Proper hygiene is important

When it comes to raw feeding, it’s important to distinguish the differences between our pets’ physiology and our own as highlighted when comparing the physiology of pets to humans. When it comes to handling raw food, humans need to be more careful. When preparing raw food for our pets, we need to ensure proper food handling practices are followed. Does this mean whipping out the 99% germ-killing spray? No absolutely not. But it does mean nice hot soapy water for all utensils and surfaces exposed to raw food.

Also be mindful of food expiry and the difference between healthy levels of bacteria in food and unhealthy levels. Raw food should be used within a few days of thawing and smell raw, but still fresh. If raw food begins to smell, it’s likely past its use by date and while many pets would still enjoy it, it’s best to discard it and serve a fresh portion. Be skeptical of raw food that can be refrigerated for more than a few days and be OK, there is likely some preservation method (chemical or process related) that allows for this.

Raw food and the bacteria that naturally accompanies it, is what canines and felines eat in the wild. Our domesticated pets wouldn’t be here if their ancestors didn’t thrive on raw fresh food. Our pets still share 99.8% DNA with their wolf/ wild cat ancestors and their physiology is designed to eat this way. So go forth, feed raw and watch your pets prosper.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy The Impact of Diet on the Canine Microbiome by Animal Nutritionist, Narelle Cooke Or Digestion rates, stomach acidity and co-feeding your pet by Dr Duncan Houston

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