Pet Food Safety:

The Final Ingredient in Your Pets Health

By Inna Shekhtman


frozen meat photo


Your pet is part of your family and you want to see them live a longer and healthier life! You buy or make great food that that will help your pet thrive, you ensure they get regular exercise and socialization, and you have a great veterinarian that supports your goals and decisions. Now you have to navigate the world of food safety: How can you ensure that the food that you buy is safe for your animal companion and the rest of your family?  How is safety implemented and regulated in the pet food processing industry? What should I do once I bring food home?  Is real (raw) food for dogs and cats less safe that highly processed food? 

The subject of food safety has received a lot of attention in the media, the industry and the pet community in recent years.  It is encouraging to see new educational initiatives to create more consumer awareness and transparency around the subject of safety in pet food!  However, food safety has also become a marketing tool with buzzwords like “clean”, “human-grade”, “certified” and “premium” that appeal to emotions rather than speak to functionality or effectiveness.  Furthermore, since the emergence of commercial raw pet food, the subject of food safety has also been used to polarize the industry by suggesting that feeding fresh food to pets poses a higher risk than processed food.  

Food safety is not an option; it’s not a political tool or a marketing tool. It’s a necessity and my hope is that as the real food revolution grows, food safety will become a culture in the industry and in our homes!

How do I know if the food that I am buying is safe?

In short, you don’t.  

In Canada, the human food supply is one of the safest in the world. However, when it comes to pet food, the regulatory system of pet food in Canada is mostly based on trust. When a pet food is made in Canada, and sold in Canada, the government simply trusts the pet food manufacturer. There are NO legislated manufacturing practices or standards to follow. There is NO inspection or verification. 

In the US, in theory, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates pet food. In practice, limited resources and the need to prioritize human safety have led the FDA to effectively cede federal oversight to the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). A private organization with no regulatory authority, the AAFCO can’t enforce its voluntary guidelines, which emphasize nutritional requirements over sourcing. So while the association establishes such standards as minimum protein levels, it’s not strict regarding where that protein comes from. 

So how do you decide which manufacturers you can trust and which foods are safe? No food safety system or food handling practices can guarantee zero risk. However, companies that are aware of food safety risk and actively work to build a safety culture and processes will go much further in reducing these risks for consumers.  Here are some questions you can ask a manufacturer:

  1. Are all the ingredients used in the products human-grade? Do they come from facilities that are certified and inspected by the CFIA, FDA or other regulatory agency?  Personally, I believe that all ingredients in a pet food should be good enough to be consumable by humans. The world of “pet ingredients” has way too many grey areas to provide any assurance with regards to safety or quality.
  2. Where do the ingredients come from? Are they from Canada, US or overseas? And if ingredients are overseas, how well regulated is the food ingredients in the source country? Try to avoid products that include ingredients from countries with poor food safety records. 
  3. What kind of food safety systems and protocols does the company have in place?   Make sure the company is committed to a culture of food safety and has a clear system in place to manage the risks. 
  4. Are they certified or inspected by any independent body to verify that these systems and protocols are being followed?

Is processed pet food (canned or kibble) safer than raw pet food?canstockphoto9736463_small

One of the concerns raised about the trend of feeding raw unprocessed food to pets is that the bacteria in raw meat can hurt your dog or other members in the household, especially those with weakened immune systems.  Yes, raw meat can contain bacteria and it might hurt your pet if they already have a compromised immune system or other health problem.  Yes, your pet may shed bacteria in their poop and if you grab their poop, you can get sick.  

Should we as consumers be aware of this risk? Absolutely! 

Are these risks unique to raw pet food? No, they are not!  ALL pet food can contain bacteria that can be harmful to pets and humans and all pets can shed bacteria in their feces, regardless of what they are eating! While FDA and other regulatory bodies continue to claim that raw presents a risk of contamination, it understates the risks of the same contaminations in hundreds of thousands of pounds of kibble and treats that occur annually.   For example, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), in 2008 a contaminated dry pet food caused 79 cases of Salmonella in humans across 21 states.  

In my opinion, real food movement for pets (raw pet food) has actually done a service to the pet industry by making the pet food safety conversation front and center for consumers! The bottom line is, whatever you feed your pet: use common sense and good food handling practise (more on this to come in the next section). And please don’t lick your pet’s poop, grab it with your hands, or lick your hands after handling it.

On the other hand, we know that fresh minimally processed foods help us thrive and are better for us than food that is heavily processed.   Fresh food is certainly not risk free and all food, including vegetables, can get contaminated with bacteria such as salmonella, E.coli, etc. but these risks can be managed and reduced with good food safety systems in industry and in the home.   Our choice of foods should be based on what’s best of the body and not based on fear – and the same goes for our pets. 

In addition, most healthy pets are naturally less affected by bacteria than the human family members – after all they do groom their own rear ends and eat and roll in all kinds of unsightly things (including feces of other animals) without any ill effects.   So focusing on keeping your pet’s digestive system healthy with quality fresh food and probiotics is the best way to support this natural mechanism.

Raw Liver Photo...

Raw Liver Photo…

Basics of Pet food safety at home

Stick to the basic rules of sanitation and food handling for your pet’s food:

  1. Do not buy or keep food past its expiry date.
  2. Inspect the food before severing it to your pet – if it looks or smells different or off, do not use it. 
  3. Wash your hands, your pet’s bowl, and any other surface that came in contact with the food with soap and hot water for 20 seconds after each meal to disinfect. Yes, even if you are feeding kibble you should follow the same food safety procedures as with raw meat to avoid risk of illness! 
  4. Do not leave food sitting in your pets bowl for prolonged periods of time. Discard any uneaten food after 15-20 minutes.  
  5. And of course, wash your hands and other contact surfaces after handling what comes out the other end.

In general, use the same common sense and food handling practices as you would for your own food. If you need a refresher, check out the FDA consumer tips page: 

Raw (meat) pet food safety basics

The risks associated with raw proteins are contamination and spoilage and these do not end at the store! Handling these products with the caution and attention they deserve is our personal responsibility once we bring them home, to assure the safety of our entire family, especially your pets because they thrive on meat diets. 

What causes food spoilage?

There are several naturally occurring catalysts that can cause meat to spoil. 

Bacteria: Meat has naturally occurring microorganisms on its surface including molds and bacteria. The bacteria break down the fats and proteins in the meats, causing it to spoil.  This breakdown begins immediately after slaughter – and while it can be slowed down by lowering the temperature of the meat, it cannot be reversed or halted. In contrast, exposure to light or heat will speed up that process. 

Mold: Another cause for meat spoilage is mold. Mold likes moist, warm places with lots of food sources — meat makes a great home for a mold colony. Mold can spoil meat by spreading over the surface in fuzzy or colorful patches that change the taste and texture of the meat.

Oxidative Rancidity: Improper packing techniques can cause a chemical reaction in the meat called oxidation. The fats in the meat react with oxygen molecules and cause the meat to go rancid, producing discoloration and a rotten, sour smell and taste.

Here are the key components of any good household food safety strategy: fish

  1. Separation

Keeping raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from other foods in your grocery shopping cart, grocery bags, and refrigerator to avoid cross-contamination.

2.  Handling

Wash your hands, preparation surfaces and utensils that come in contact with raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs with soap and hot water to sanitize. 

3. Storage 

For frozen products, store in the freezer until ready to use. Generally, food will not spoil in the freezer, but it will degrade in quality. For fresh or thawed products, store in the refrigerator for a limited period of time, to avoid spoilage.  The “Danger Zone” for bacteria growth is between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly. 

Vacuum sealing slows down the growth of aerobic, spoilage bacteria and fungi by reducing the food’s contact with atmospheric oxygen. Therefore, food quality, good texture and appearance last longer when the food is vacuum sealed. 

How long can you store meat, poultry, and seafood in the refrigerator?

 4. Thawing

If you are purchasing frozen raw food for your animal companion, you are likely going through the daily ritual of thawing the food before serving.  As soon as raw meat begins to thaw and becomes warmer than 40 °F, bacteria that may have been present before freezing begin to multiply at exponential rates. For this reason you should never use hot water to thaw raw food (not to mention it will get cooked) or leave raw food on the counter at room temperature for more than two hours. Even though the center of the package may still be frozen as it thaws on the counter, the outer layer of the food could be in the “Danger Zone,” between 40 and 140 °F — temperatures where bacteria multiply rapidly.

There are two methods of safety defrosting your pets raw meal: in the refrigerator and in cold water. 

Refrigerator Thawing

Planning ahead is the key to this method because of the lengthy time involved.  Allow for a full day to thaw the meal if it’s a flat-pack – more if the food is in a block.  A large frozen item like a turkey requires at least a day (24 hours) for every 5 pounds of weight. Even small amounts of frozen food — such as a pound of ground meat or boneless chicken breasts — require a full day to thaw. When thawing foods in the refrigerator, there are variables to take into account.

  • Some areas of the appliance may keep food colder than other areas.
  • Food will take longer to thaw in a refrigerator set at 35 °F than one set at 40 °F

Cold Water Thawing

This method is faster than refrigerator thawing but requires more attention. The food must be in a leak-proof package or plastic bag. If the bag leaks, bacteria from the air or surrounding environment could be introduced into the food. The bag should be submerged in cold tap water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it continues to thaw. Small flatter meal package of 1-2 lbs — may thaw in an hour or less.

5. Freezing and re-freezing

Home freezers are designed to keep food frozen, not to freeze food from room temperature. This means that even small portions of fresh food can take days to fully freeze, compromising the quality of the food.  Avoid freezing or re-freezing things in your home freezer. If you must do so, allow as much space around the package as possible for air circulation.  

Before we end, some food for thought … Most foodborne illness is caused by bacteria. For many years, we have been led to believe that our food and environment needs to be sterile to avoid illness.  And for many years we bought this message and waged the war on bacteria with chemical disinfectants and other modes.  More recently, we have begun to appreciate the balance of nature when it comes to bacteria and the importance of nurturing a balance of bacteria in our body end environment rather than focusing on elimination.  There are thousands of bacteria strains in the air, on surfaces and even in our own body. Not all of these bacteria are bad – in fact the majority of them play an essential role in building the immune system and keeping us healthy and safe.   

Food safety is not black and white. There is much that we are still learning about food safety in industry and in the home.  If food safety is to become a culture, it first needs to be a conversation – one that re-examines all our preconceived notions and looks at what makes the most sense for our pets and for our entire family to thrive!




By Valerie Barry, KPA-CTP

In Partnership With Dogs



Through all the dogs we’ve had and all the training and learning I’ve done over the years, there are certain cues that stick out as particularly good (and fun) things to teach your dog.  I’ve never been much of a formal obedience-minded person.  I do teach obedience classes and I teach some “traditional” obedience cues to my dogs, but I prefer to be a little more creative.  Also, there are just certain things that make living together a little bit easier!

Over the past 4 years or so, I’ve started teaching my dogs a new cue and I’ve also started including it in my class curriculum.  I have to say – it’s a winner!  People love this cue! Even the dogs seem to love it!

Stop!  That’s my new favorite.  What’s it for?  Well – just imagine some of the things your dog does that you might use that word for.  Stop – digging up the plants; barking at the squirrels; teasing the cat – and so on.

Several years ago I came across a video from a trainer who worked with rescue bully breeds and he was demonstrating his use of the Stop cue.  He taught all his foster dogs and clients a Stop cue.  His reason for doing so was to put some level of control into the play between the bully breeds he was working with.  

The dogs he had in his video were strong dogs and they had a pretty fast and furious play style.  The Stop cue was designed to get the dogs to stop playing altogether or to stop and take a brief break so that play would remain fairly consistent and not escalate into something other than play.  

If you’re just one person monitoring play between 2 or more strong dogs, it can be difficult to physically stop the dogs if their play starts to get a little too crazy.  Pulling dogs apart during play isn’t really ideal either as tension on collars or harnesses can often increase the energy of the play making the dogs harder to separate and less thrilled about being stopped.  Teaching a really solid Stop cue is a great, proactive way to solve this issue.FullSizeRender

It was a great video – unfortunately I no longer recall who the trainer was at the time so I can’t give him credit!  It lodged in the back of my mind as a really good cue to teach but I didn’t take it any further at the time.  

Fast forward a couple of years and we adopt Quincy – a 6-month-old female Doberman.  At the time, a friend of mine had a dog the same age (Frankie) and we started to introduce the girls to each other and to have the occasional play date.  For a time, I was looking after Frankie often and the 2 girls quickly became fast friends.  At that point they were both about the same size – they weren’t that big then – but boy did they play like crazy things!  They were nuts when they got going – even in a small space like my living room.  If I ever let them out into the yard together (which was a rare occasion!), I needed at least one other person to help monitor things – they both ran like the wind and were very hard to catch once they got caught up in the frenzy of their play.  It was a full time job looking after them both – and exhausting!

I really didn’t want them to learn to play like idiots without taking appropriate breaks, so I had to do something about it.  I remembered the Stop and decided to put it to the test.

I spent several days working on training Stop with the 2 dogs whenever we got together.  Within a remarkably short time both girls were pretty good at it and it suddenly got a whole lot easier to have them together.  Before too long I didn’t have to monitor them nearly as closely and I could get them to take breaks whenever I could hear or see things getting a bit too fast with very little effort on my part.  Fantastic result!  

Fast forward another 2 years and we adopt Doberman puppy, Jack.  IMG_9031

At this point, Quincy has become a full-grown almost adult Doberman.  She’s not big for a Doberman but she’s still a good-sized dog and pretty strong – and Jack is looking like he’s going to be a lot bigger still.  The Stop will be a perfect cue to be able to control their interactions, as they both get bigger and more mature.

What does “Stop” mean?

My criterion for Stop is:  Stop whatever you’re doing and come back to me.  

Before I even started teaching the cue, I put quite a bit of thought into what I wanted to have happen.  That’s an extremely important point! Before you begin to teach your dog anything, you need to know exactly what you want as a result.  If you’re not clear what you want, your dog won’t be either and confusion can be frustrating for everyone and your training will not be successful.

I decided that if I my dogs just Stopped with nothing else following, then there was a good chance they would go back to what they were doing sooner than I might want.  Also, I really liked the idea of them being close enough to put on a leash if I needed to.  Now, of course I could cue “Stop” and then cue something else like a recall, but if I can accomplish all that in just one cue, why not?

Your criterion doesn’t have to be the same as mine, but make sure you have a clear idea of your end result.  Also, make sure you can easily train it.  If you wanted your dog to Stop and stay where he is, that would be tricky.  That involves training at a distance, which is done systematically and generally takes quite a bit of time.  It’s not easy to train your dog to perform things far away from you.  Traditionally we often begin training our dogs quite close to us – teaching Sits, Downs, Roll Over, Play Dead, Hand Targets, etc.  They become used to being close to us when performing cues or coming to us to get their reinforcement and this makes distance training quite challenging.Screenshot 2017-04-27 14.08.41

Let the training begin!

I began Stop training with Jack the day we adopted him – at 10 weeks of age.  The results with him have been even better than I expected!  Certainly starting before his imprinting period was over made a big difference, but also because I had already trained the cue a few times before so I was very clear on how to get it and what to look for.  Plus, Jack has some pretty strong drive, so he does everything with great gusto!

Beginning Steps:

To begin with, ensure that you are working in an area with nothing much going on – maybe your living room or kitchen.

  1. With your dog on a leash short enough that you can reach his nose, cue the word “Stop”.
  2. Immediately put a really good treat right in front of his nose for him to eat.  Continue to feed more treats while you take a few steps backward leading him with you as he takes and eats his treats – at least 15 treat in all! Lavish him with some verbal praise while he follows you eating his treats.
  3. Use a cue to end the exercise – “All Done!” 
  4. Repeat the first 3 steps at least 5 times.

Next Steps:

  1. With your dog on a short leash, cue the word “Stop” – this time pause instead of immediately putting a treat in front of your dog’s nose.
  2. As soon as your dog begins to turn toward you looking for that stream of treats, click or verbally mark his response – “Good!”
  3. Immediately begin the continuous feeding of treats while you once again take a few steps backward and lavishly praise his brilliance.  Again, feed at least 15 treats in all before stopping.
  4. “All Done!”  
  5. Repeat at least 10 times, and then take a break.FullSizeRender4


If you aren’t getting a response, there are several reasons why this may be:

  1. Your treats aren’t tasty enough.  

You need to use mind-blowing, over-the-top treats for this to ultimately be a solidly trained cue.  Remember that you are possibly asking your dog to come away from something really fantastic to come back to you even if it’s just for a brief moment.  Make it worth their while!

  1. You aren’t being generous enough.  

When I mention in the steps to give your dog 15 treats, I mean at least 15 and I’m not kidding!  I will give at least that and even more – 25 or 35 pieces of rare roast beef.  It has to be ridiculously rewarding in order to compete with taking a play break from your dog’s best friend.  

The biggest mistake I see people make in their training is not being generous enough – nothing more complicated than that – simply not begin generous enough.  And your dog is the one that gets to decide what’s generous enough!

  1. Your set up is too exciting.  

If you’ve done lots of practice in your living room, don’t move from there to having your dog playing with their best friend!  And when you do move to that step, have both dogs on leash and merely looking at each other from at least 10 feet away.  If you make the set up too challenging to break away from, too quickly your training will take a long time.  

  1. Your dog isn’t on leash or confined in some way.  

You really need to be able to control the outcome to some extent in the initial steps.  I don’t want you to use the leash to get them to come back to you – the treat and the less than exciting set up should do the trick.  However, I do want you to use the leash to prevent your dog from simply wandering off and choosing to do something else instead.IMG_2226

The Double Reinforcement!

Perhaps the best tip of all is to make your set up include the possibility of a double-reinforcement.

This means that whatever you Stop your dog from doing, ideally, is something he really wants to return to doing.  This becomes your second reinforcement after the buffet of delicious treats is over.

After some initial training with low distractions, I started to use play as the second reinforcement. Every time I cued Stop, both my dogs got tons of treats and then I would say “All Done!” – back they would jump into play.  Such fun and well worth the break for each of them! 

You could do the same training with a friend and their dog in order to get that reinforcement of play.  If you don’t have a second dog available or if your dog isn’t good with other dogs, then just be creative.  The second reinforcement can be anything that your dog finds reinforcing:  going off leash, chasing a ball, chasing you, getting dinner, playing tug, etc.

(Note:  If your dog does not find play with another dog or play with a particular dog fun, then returning to play is NOT reinforcing. However, the relief of being able to take a break from any play or interaction that they are not enjoying will actually act as the second reinforcement.)IMG_2231

Continuing to Proof your Training.

Once your training is progressing and your dog is clearly beginning to understand his Stop cue, you can begin to “proof” your training.  Proofing is simply practicing and training in every circumstance you can think of in a systematic way and choosing a careful pace.

I didn’t go from play in my living room to free play in my backyard as the next step.  Instead, we did a ton of training in my living room with longer and longer time periods of play between breaks first.  Then I would introduce new toys, or something to get the excitement of the play amped up before introducing Stop breaks.  I wanted to start working with bigger bursts of excitement before asking for a Stop.

I also started using it in other contexts – someone at the door, dogs barking; off leash walking away from me; staring at something out the window; barking at a squirrel; heading toward a dropped food item on the floor (tough one!), etc.

Be careful to make things easy to first when you change contexts.  When I started to introduce free play in the yard, I began when they were both already tired from a long hike.  Then I made sure they only interacted for mere seconds before cueing Stop – not waiting for the adrenaline to build very much at all.  The reinforcements were over the top – the best food option I could come up with.

This became a very useful cue for me and I have put a lot of time and effort into the training.  After about a year and a half of working with both my dogs, I can now cue them to Stop playing together anywhere (so far!) – out of sight, a long way away, with any level of play, with different dogs who don’t even know the cue themselves.  It’s pretty impressive if I do say so myself.  I love it!

Also, I have to say, it’s a lot of fun to do in front of people because boy does it look great when you can stop your dog in mid-flight or mid-play with their dog and have them immediately heading right back to you!

Other Uses for Stop.

 I have found tons of uses for Stop:

  • off leash as an alternative to my Recall
  • chasing wildlife
  • barking
  • jumping up (not an ideal solution, but okay in an emergency)
  • a lunge or pull on leash (not a good solution for constant pulling, but good in an emergency)
  • spotting or thinking about chasing a jogger or biker
  • stopping a potential interaction with another dog
  • stopping a stare or a stalking position directed at other dogs
  • a great cue for people who walk more than one dog – owners or even dog walkers

What uses can you think of for Stop?

Enjoy your training with your dog! Remember, keep it positive – and BE GENEROUS with your reinforcement!

For video examples of the Stop in use, check out my Facebook page at “In Partnership With Dogs”.IMG_2230