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Antibiotic Resistance and ‘Superbugs’ … How Safe is Your Pet?

dog antibiotic resistanceIn mid-July, a U.S. congressional subcommittee held a hearing titled "Antibiotic Resistance and the Use of Antibiotics in Animal Agriculture."

U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman of California opened the hearing with the following statement:

"As we will hear today, animals raised for food production are routinely provided antibiotics to prevent infections.

In stark contrast to animals, we would be shocked if a pediatrician ever ordered antibiotics for an entire nursery school class to keep the children from being infected with strep throat. But in this country, that is standard practice for a barnyard full of pigs, or cows, or chickens."

This hearing came on the heels of a proposal by the FDA on June 28 in favor of phasing out the use of antibiotics for growth promotion in cattle.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is opposed to broad antibiotic bans like those proposed in H.R. 1549 and S. 619, the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act (PAMTA). Rather, the AVMA encourages "a regulatory strategy that is based on science, risk-and-benefit analysis, risk management that is commensurate with the level of risk, and cooperation with all relevant stakeholders," according to Dr. Christine Hoang.

AVMA scientific experts are concerned legislation like PAMTA would have adverse effects on animal and public health.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

The U.S. government's focus on the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture is welcome and long overdue. And I think Rep. Waxman's nursery school class analogy is a good one.

As a veterinary practitioner, however, I also understand the AVMA's concern that a knee-jerk response (motivated at least in part by political posturing) could have unintended consequences.

The AVMA is not against regulating the use of antibiotics in food animals. It is urging a comprehensive, science-based strategy rather than a ready-fire-aim approach to the issue.

Factory Farms and Antibiotics

Factory farming methods are a significant source of antibiotic exposure in humans. It's estimated between 70 and 80 percent of antibiotics produced in the U.S. are fed to cattle, pigs and poultry.

According to Keep Antibiotics Working:

"U.S. meat producers routinely put low levels of antibiotics into feed given to non-sick animals, both to spur faster growth and to compensate for raising animals in the crowded industrial-scale conditions which now predominate in the US. Many of the 17 antibiotics used to promote livestock growth are identical or closely related to those used to treat sick people."

Antibiotic Resistance

Antibiotic resistance is a term used to describe a situation in which bacteria are able to survive and multiply in the presence of an antibiotic that at one time killed them or stopped their proliferation.

In most cases, even when bacteria are exposed for the first time to a particular antibiotic, the majority will die, but some will survive and pass on that resistance to other bacteria. Unlike higher organisms, bacteria can transfer DNA not only to bacteria that is not their offspring, but also to bacteria of other species.

The problem is not that certain disease-causing bacteria are antibiotic resistant. The problem is the resistance genes in any type of bacteria that transfer their survivability to billions of other bacteria.

This is how "superbugs" are born – a superbug is a strain of bacteria able to survive assault by multiple types of antibiotics.

The Keep Antibiotics Working organization offers the following clear indicators that antibiotic resistance is an emerging public health crisis:

  • Resistant bacterial infections increase health care costs by at least $4 billion per year in the U.S.
  • One out of six cases of Campylobacter infection, the most common cause of food poisoning, is resistant to fluoroquinolones, the drugs most often used to treat severe food-borne illness. Just six years ago, before fluoroquinolones were approved for use in poultry, such resistance was negligible. Campylobacter accounts for 2.4 million illnesses and over 120 deaths each year in the U.S.
  • One out of three cases of human infection by a particular strain of Salmonella bacteria is resistant to more than five different antibiotics. Salmonella causes 1.4 million illnesses and 580 deaths annually in the U.S.
  • Nearly all strains of Staphylococcus infections in the U.S. are resistant to penicillin, and many are resistant to newer drugs.

Why You Should Be Concerned About Antibiotics and Your Pet

Antibiotic resistance is not only a serious concern for humans, it is also a rapidly growing problem for our companion animals.

Veterinarians are seeing dramatic increases in bacteria strains that are resistant to multiple classes of drugs.

As the problem of antibiotic resistance in pets continues to grow, vets will have fewer and fewer options for treating infections in your dog or cat.

It is my firm belief antibiotics are dangerously over prescribed in too many conventional veterinary practices. Not only can over prescribing cause your pet to develop an allergy to the medication over time, even worse, too-frequent and unnecessary use of these drugs is contributing to the escalating problem of antibiotic resistance in pets, just as it is in people.

When your vet can no longer cure bacterial infections in your pet with antibiotics, the life of your beloved dog, cat or other animal is threatened. The MRSA bacteria is the most widely recognized example of a potentially fatal staph infection that is resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics in use today.

How to Help Your Pet Stay Safe

If you suspect your pet has an infection -- or if a veterinarian makes a diagnosis of infection -- before you agree to a course of treatment, if the doctor doesn't suggest it, I recommend you ask him to do a culture and sensitivity test.

When a doctor prescribes an antibiotic without a culture and sensitivity test, he or she is making a guess at what type of infection is present and the best drug to treat it.

And while many physicians and veterinarians are very good guessers, given the growing danger of antibiotic resistant strains of disease-causing bacteria, in my opinion, there's no longer any room for error. Each time an inappropriate or unnecessary antibiotic is prescribed, the potential for resistance increases.

A culture and sensitivity test gives your pet's veterinarian two very important pieces of information:

  1. The precise organism causing the infection
  2. The best drug to use to kill it

A culture is simply a sample from the infected area. It can be a bit of urine, feces, infected tissue or gunk from your dog's ear. The sample is incubated and is checked for organism growth starting the following day (typically). When colonies of organisms form, each one is tested to determine what type of bacteria, fungi or yeast is present.

The sensitivity portion of the test involves placing minute amounts of different antibiotics on the organisms to see which drugs the bacteria are most sensitive (responsive) to.

The decision making process must also involve using an appropriate antibiotic that can also be administered (by injection, orally or topically) for optimum result in the specific area of the body where the infection is located.

A culture and sensitivity test takes a little extra time, so prepare to leave your vet appointment without a definitive diagnosis or antibiotics the day the culture is taken. But the additional time it takes to identify the bacteria and the drugs it best responds to will allow precise treatment of your pet's infection rather than a hit-or-miss approach. Your dog or cat will heal more quickly and thoroughly, and you have also dramatically reduced her exposure to antibiotics.

Replacing the Good Bugs

Since antibiotics kill the disease-causing bacteria and the beneficial bacteria as well, I strongly urge you to give your pet a probiotic supplement during and after antibiotic therapy.

Even though antibiotics kill off some of the probiotics you give your pet, you can still significantly reduce the side effects of the drug by continuing probiotic therapy throughout the treatment with antibiotics.

Supplementing with probiotics will help your pet with the diarrhea that commonly results from a course of antibiotics. The supplement can also prevent secondary yeast infections – another common side effect.

Give your pet the recommended dosage of probiotics from two to four hours after he gets his antibiotic. Continue with probiotic supplementation for at least a month after antibiotic therapy is concluded.