An ongoing salmonella outbreak in the US with more than 70 cases in 21 states has been linked to a factory in Pennsylvania that has — quite literally — gone to the dogs.

In a period spanning a little over a year, the Mars Petcare US factory in central Pennsylvania produced more than 23 tons of potentially contaminated pet food that has been marketed under 105 different brand names. This is the first salmonella outbreak in the US definitively traced to pet food.

Infection with the salmonella bacteria produces an illness called salmonellosis. Symptoms include fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea all of which usually start within the first 12 to 72 hours of illness and typically lasts from four to seven days. While most otherwise healthy people are able to recover without medical intervention, the resulting diarrhea can be so severe that IV fluids are needed. In addition, in especially susceptible individuals such as infants, older adults and people with a weakened or impaired immune system, the infection can spread from the abdominal tract to the bloodstream. This can lead to death if not immediately treated with antibiotics.

According to the CDC, the salmonella outbreak is a reminder that pet feeding practices have potential consequences on human health.

The first simple step pet−owning consumers can take to protect the most vulnerable in their families is to check the labels on all dry pet food currently in the house to see if any products were manufactured by Mars Petcare U.S. Consumers can then check the product against the list of products on the Mars Petcare US website that are included in the recall. Although the plant was closed in 2007, even products bought recently may be contaminated, since pet food has a long shelf life and some discount stores may not have received information about the recall.

According to the CDC, the salmonella outbreak is a reminder that pet feeding practices have potential consequences on human health. Public health risks can easily be reduced by simple actions such as frequent washing of bowls that are used to feed pets. Contact between items which are involved in preparation of food for humans and preparation of food for pets should also be avoided. Moving the pet feeding area from the kitchen to another room in the house can help ensure this separation although care should be taken to choose an area not easily accessible to infants and young children. Anyone who touches dry pet food (including treats) should immediately wash their hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before moving on to the next activity.

Finally, families that include susceptible individuals should make sure that these guidelines are observed anywhere family members spend a portion of their day, including houses of friends and home−based daycare.