Updated with link to the recent Helsinki Survey on raw feeding. See link at the bottom.
Can the bacteria in raw meat hurt my pet?
IF the cat or dog already has an compromised immune system or some underlying problem then yes, there is a possibility. However, Cats and Dogs are surprisingly well-equipped to deal with bacteria. Their saliva has antibacterial properties; it contains lysozyme, an enzyme that lyses and destroys harmful bacteria. Their short digestive tract is designed to push through food and bacteria quickly without giving bacteria time to colonize. The extremely acidic environment in the gut is also a good bacteria colonization deterrent. People often point to the fact that dogs shed salmonella in their feces (even kibble-fed dogs do this) without showing any ill effects as proof that the dog is infected with salmonella. In reality, all this proves is that the dog has effectively passed the salmonella through its system with no problems. Yes, the cat and dog can act as a salmonella carrier, but the solution is simple—do not eat cat or dog poop and wash your hands after picking up after your cat or dog.
Even kibble-fed cats and dogs regularly shed salmonella and other bacteria. Most of the documented cases of severe bacterial septicemia are from kibble-fed animals or animals suffering from reactions to vaccines. Commercial pet foods have been pulled off shelves more than once because of bacteria AND molds that produce a deadly toxin. The solution? Clean up well and wash your hands. Think about your cat or dog—this is an animal that can lick itself, lick other cats and dogs, eat a variety of disgusting rotting things, and ingest its own feces or those of other animals with no ill effects. The cat or dog, plain and simple, can handle greater bacterial loads than we can.
Can dogs and cats get sick from the bacteria?
We suppose they can but it is rare and usually indicative of an underlying problem, especially when one stops to consider how much bacteria that a cat or dog probably comes in contact with every single day. One must ask "Why this cat or dog? Why now? What has made this particular cat or dog susceptible to bacterial overgrowth?" Something is not 'right' regarding the cat or dog's health—a healthy cat or dog does not suffer from bacterial infections or bacterial septicemia. That is just common sense. A cat or dog suffering from "salmonella poisoning" is obviously not healthy, especially when compared to a cat or dog that ate the same food with the same salmonella load but is perfectly healthy and unaffected. The first cat or dog has suffered a 'breakdown' in its health that allowed the bacteria to become a problem; if one is talking in homeopathic medicine terminology, this is simply one more symptom that shows the cat or dog is suffering from chronic disease.
We put forth that it is the kibble, not the raw meat, that causes bacterial problems. Kibble in the intestine not only irritates the lining of the bowels but also provides the perfect warm, wet environment with plenty of undigested sugars and starches as food for bacteria. This is why thousands of processed food-fed animals suffer from from a condition called Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth, or SIBO (Lonsdale, T. 2001. Raw Meaty Bones. pg 85). Raw meaty bones, however, create a very inhospitable environment for bacteria, as RMBs are easily digestible and have no carbohydrates, starches, or sugars to feed the bacteria.
Can raw-fed cats or dogs make other cats or dogs sick?
If the other cat or dog has a suppressed immune system or some underlying problem, then perhaps a raw-fed cat or dog can make another cat or dog sick. But keep in mind the inordinate amount of bacteria cats and dogs usually ingest anyway, not to mention the plaques of bacteria covering the teeth and gums of the kibble-fed cats and dogs. People recall raw-fed cats and dogs being the only cats and dogs at cat and dog shows that did not get sick with some communicable disease of some sort, and then instantly assume that it was those cats and dogs that got all the other cats and dogs sick. A more plausible explanation is that the raw-fed cats and dogs have a much stronger immune system and are thus better equipped to fight off diseases and "feline/canine common colds" that circulate at shows (and possibly that they have been vaccinated less than their kibble-fed counterparts, which results in a stronger immune system).
Just some final thoughts on bacteria and raw: this is what finds its way into the "sterile" kibbled commercial foods: "Meat products not intended for human consumption, such as inedible tissues, condemned portions of carcasses, and entire carcasses of condemned animals (eg, animals found to be dead, dying, disabled, or diseased at the time of slaughter), are also used for [cat/]dog food. Because of the inherent nature of these products and the less stringent handling requirements, compared with products approved for human consumption, these products may contain high levels of bacterial contamination." (LeJuene, J.T. and D.D. Hancock. 2001. Public health concerns associated with feeding raw meat diets to dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(9): 1222.)
As for commercial foods being "bacteria free" (an assumption that is often inferred when people put down raw diets because of the bacteria):
"Pet foods, commercial or homemade, provide an ideal environment for bacterial proliferation." (LeJuene, J.T. and D.D. Hancock. 2001. Public health concerns associated with feeding raw meat diets to dogs. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 219(9): 1224.)
So do not be fooled into thinking kibbled, commercial pet food is a sterile, bacteria-free source of food! The starches, rancid fats, and sugars in kibbled foods provide much better food sources for bacteria than the proteins in raw meat.