Antibiotics have saved countless lives, both human and animal, from what would have been life-threatening bacterial infections. But there is a downside to our use of antibiotics--overuse when they are not necessary and inappropriate use where directions for administration of medication are not followed can result in antibiotic resistance.
Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria are exposed to inadequate or low levels of antibiotics that do not destroy them. The bacteria that survive are apt to have developed a resistance to the antibiotics that are meant to destroy them. When they are exposed to subsequent doses of antibiotics in order to destroy the infection they have produced, the antibiotics are ineffective.
So how does the use of antibiotics in our pets contribute to antibiotic-resistant microorganisms and how are we all affected? Read on for more information on how antibiotic use in our pets can be problematic and contribute to the formation of resistant superbugs and what can be done to mitigate resistant bacteria.
What is Antibiotic Resistance?
When you get a bacterial infection, you are prescribed antibiotics to destroy the infection. Our dogs and cats are also prescribed many of the same medicines to resolve bacterial infections. However, some microorganisms can become resistant when antibiotics are used inappropriately, either by inadequate dosage, incomplete course of administration, or when antibiotics are not required. Bacteria that survive exposure to antibiotics incorporate information in their DNA that makes them resistant to the destructive abilities of the antibiotic. This DNA can be passed on to bacterial offspring, or even other bacteria that are not offspring. This can result in large amounts of bacteria with the genetic information to survive an attack by an antibiotic medication.
When this occurs in our pets and bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotics develops, there is a risk that the germs could be passed to pet owners and other humans exposed to the bacteria. Infections resulting from exposure to resistant bacteria can not be effectively treated with the antibiotics they are resistant to. This results in trials with several antibiotics sometimes being required to find an effective treatment. If bacterial infection is persistent, and issues with discovering an effective antibiotic for treatment arise, superbugs can develop. Superbugs are bacteria that are resistant to many antibiotics and can cause serious illness in the pets and people in which they cause infection.
Resistant bacteria tend to be more prevalent in skin conditions and urinary tract infections. Often, these bacterial conditions can be passed between other pets and pet owners. Also, bacterial infections occurring in veterinary hospitals may be similar to those that occur in our own hospitals, including drug-resistant bacteria that take hold at the site of surgical incisions. Although the risk of your pet passing a superbug to yourself or a family member is low, it is possible, and just as likely as the risk of humans passing superbugs to their pets.
Steps for Prevention
The overuse of antibiotics in humans is thought to be about 50%. That is, half of the antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary, as an infection other than a bacterial infection is present, for which these pharmaceuticals provide no benefit. It is thought that the rate of antibiotic overuse in pets is similar.
If your dog or cat is experiencing illness, be sure that a bacterial infection is the cause before allowing the administration of an antibiotic for the condition. Discuss possible causes of illness with your veterinarian and be sure to have tests such as bacterial cultures performed to confirm what type of bacteria is, or is not, present and use medication that is specific to counteracting the type of microorganism present. A culture of infected tissue or body fluids from the site of infection can be harvested, and bacteria present allowed to multiply until an adequate number of bacteria are present to identify the organism. Taking cultures and prescribing medication based on results will not only prevent the use of antibiotics when a bacterial infection is not present and would be ineffective, but can allow the type of antibiotic used to be specifically tailored to be effective against the type of germs present, resulting in more effective eradication of the infection.
Administer Antibiotics Correctly
If bacterial infection is present in your pet and antibiotics are prescribed, be sure to administer the prescribed dosage for the full course of doses. Stopping treatment early, or administering an inadequate amount, can easily result in bacteria remaining that were exposed to the medication without being destroyed, resulting in the development of resistance.
Maintain General Health
Keep your pet healthy with exercise, diet, and regular veterinary attention so they do not become susceptible to bacterial infections or an inadequate response to antibacterial medications when they are required. A sickly pet that is administered antibiotics may not recover fully in spite of medication, allowing residual bacteria that have been exposed to medication to develop resistance.
Immune System Support
Because antibiotics can destroy the “healthy” bacteria present in you or your pet, as well as the illness-causing bacteria, treatment with probiotics or other supplements to support immune system functioning and restore naturally beneficial flora after a course of antibiotic can help to prevent subsequent infections. “Nature abhors a vacuum”; if healthy organisms are not present, then harmful bacteria may proliferate, and some of these may be resistant bacteria.
Be sure to wash your hands when handling your pet, especially if you or your pet are ill. Avoid allowing your dog or cat to lick, bite or scratch you, as this can transmit bacterial infections.
Common Sense Precautions
As pet owners, avoiding bacterial infections, keeping our animals as healthy as possible, avoiding use of antibiotics when bacterial infections are not present, and administering medications as directed can reduce the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant microbes from developing. When bacteria survive treatment with antibiotics, the germs can pass on that resistance to other bacteria, resulting in a multitude of bacteria for which antibiotic medications are ineffective, and resulting in illness in pets and people that cannot be readily treated with available medications. By ensuring that antibiotics are used appropriately, the chance of resistance to the pharmaceuticals is minimized, and the incidence of pets and people exchanging resistant bacteria, or superbugs is decreased, which is a benefit to all of us, furry and non-furry alike.