Resist This Temptation, They Could Infect You With Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet store puppies

Story at-a-glance -

  • In a recent two-year period, dozens of people were infected with antibiotic- resistant bacteria that was linked to pet store puppies
  • This occurred because puppy mill operators, transporters and pet store owners routinely give multiple rounds of antibiotics to puppies, including healthy ones, to try to keep them well enough to be sold
  • The veterinary community is also guilty of rampant overuse of antibiotics; rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in companion animals in the U.S. are rising at an alarming rate
  • As a pet parent, you must advocate for your animal companion and insist the right tests are run before accepting a prescription for antibiotics
  • As a potential pet parent, you can be part of the solution by refusing to buy animals from pet stores supplied by puppy mills (which is most of them)

According to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 100 people have been infected by antibiotic-resistant bacteria traced to pet store puppies.1 And just as troubling is the fact that according to Scientific American, experts believe the problem stemmed from antibiotics given to healthy dogs, “a decision that all but surely fostered antibiotic resistance.”2

A Textbook Case: How Potentially Fatal Drug-Resistant Infections Begin and Spread

According to the CDC report, the bacterium involved was campylobacter, which causes over a million human infections in the U.S. each year. In August 2017, a handful of infections in Florida residents were linked to a national pet store chain based in Ohio.

This prompted a multistate investigation by the CDC and local and state health and agriculture departments. From January 2016 through January 2018, 118 people in 18 states acquired the infection linked to the puppies. Of the 118, 29 were pet store employees. The bacterial isolates involved were found to be resistant to all antibiotics commonly used to treat campylobacter infections.

Six pet store companies were linked to the outbreak, and store records showed that of the 149 investigated puppies (puppies from which fecal samples were taken), 142 or 95 percent had received one or more rounds of antibiotics before reaching the store or while at the store.

Sixteen different types of antibiotics were given to the pups, and about half the puppies weren’t even sick. They were given the drugs to prevent illness. The CDC’s report concluded that puppies can be a source of multi-drug resistant bacterial infections in humans, “warranting a closer look at antimicrobial use in the commercial dog industry.”

A ‘Terrible Distribution System for Multidrug-Resistant Bacteria’

This report is so troubling on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. We’re undoubtedly talking about puppy mill animals, which is heartbreaking in and of itself. We’re also talking about dozens of unsuspecting people who became sick with an infection that was difficult to cure because it was resistant to multiple types of antibiotics. And we’re talking about the rampant overuse and abuse of antibiotics, another frightening and frustrating situation.

“This is shocking,” Lance Price, Ph.D., head of George Washington University’s Antibiotic Resistance Action Center, told Scientific American. “This is an important study that’s shining a light on something that we need to spend more time on. For me, this is an indication that they need to be raising these animals differently. They’re creating this terrible distribution system for multidrug-resistant bacteria.”

Also startled by the report was the antibiotics program director for U.S. PIRG (Public Interest Research Group):

“Antibiotics should only be used to treat illness, not to compensate for poor practices — whether it’s trucking dogs long distances and having poor hygiene in the process along the way,” says Matthew Wellington. “These are lifesaving medicines that should only be used to treat sick animals or sick people.”

Wellington is correct, except the problem doesn’t start in transport trucks — it starts where these puppies are bred. The majority of puppy mills are filthy operations in which animals are subjected to cruel treatment and inhumane living conditions. Antibiotics are used and abused by mill operators as a hedge against their poor breeding practices and the potential for puppies to become desperately ill before and during transport to retailers.

Overuse of Antibiotics Is Also Rampant Among Veterinarians

Unfortunately, the veterinary community is also guilty of overprescribing antibiotics. Nationally, rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in companion animals are rising at an alarming rate.

Almost every day, Dr. Jason Pieper, a veterinary dermatologist and veterinary clinical medicine professor at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, sees antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections in cats, dogs and other pets. He sees a lot of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus pseudintermedius (MSRP), which is found on the skin of dogs and cats.

He’s also seeing pseudomonas ear infections, as well as antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, enterococcus species and salmonella in pets’ gastrointestinal (GI) and urinary tracts.

“I think a big problem is people [veterinarians] giving antibiotics to animals when it’s not indicated, when it’s not necessary,” says Pieper. “If your patient is going into surgery and there’s a huge risk, then it’s prudent to give antibiotics. But in other circumstances, it’s better not to.”3

Research shows that giving animals antibiotics for only a week or two can produce antibiotic resistance, and most effective antibiotic prescriptions for dogs and cats are for a minimum of 21 days.

“The other issue is that veterinarians are giving their patients more powerful antibiotics than are appropriate,” says Pieper. “Some of the more potent or broader-spectrum antibiotics induce mutations in the bacteria that spur resistance and cause more problems.”

Pieper believes the veterinary community needs to take a lesson from human medicine and start practicing responsible use of antibiotics. Skin inflammation in pets should be tested first to determine whether antibiotics are needed.

“I see way too many cases where such tests are not performed and the doctors give out antibiotics no matter what,” he says. “This is perpetuating the problem.”

How You Can Be Part of the Solution

As a pet parent and your animal companion’s primary advocate, you also need to get involved. Insist that your veterinarian confirm the presence of a bacterial infection with culture and sensitivity testing before accepting a prescription for antibiotics.

  • Remember: Viral and fungal infections do not respond to antibiotics. Prescribing antibiotics to treat a viral infection is a classic example of indiscriminate use of the drug, and it still happens all the time in veterinary medicine. Don’t let it happen to your pet!
  • Giving the proper dose of antibiotic at the proper intervals and using the entire prescription is extremely important, even if your pet seems to be fully recovered before the medication has run out. Finishing the prescription will ensure the infection is totally resolved and prevent your pet from having to take another full course of antibiotics because the first course wasn't fully administered, and the infection wasn't cleared.
  • Make sure to provide your dog or cat with a high-quality pet probiotic and feed fermented foods during and after antibiotic therapy. Giving a probiotic will reseed the gut with the appropriate healthy bacteria your furry family member needs for a strong and balanced immune system.
  • Work with an integrative veterinarian who has experience using natural substances to help reduce bacterial growth, including oregano oil, propolis, and olive leaf extract. I also use essential oils, colloidal silver, Manuka honey and Pavia cream to naturally treat MRSA and other types of skin infections.

If you’re considering adding an animal companion to the family, please don’t buy a puppy from a pet store, since most receive their “inventory” from puppy mills, and don’t purchase a puppy online from an Internet seller. When people stop doing business with puppy retailers, puppy mills will go out of business.

Adopt your next puppy or dog from a local animal shelter or rescue organization. There are millions of wonderful, deserving pets waiting for homes across the U.S. You’ll feel good about your decision, and you may very well save a life.

Take action against puppy mills by supporting and recommending legislation that regulates the breeding and selling of animals in your city, county or state. Volunteer your time or talents, or donate to organizations that act as watchdogs over breeders, including the Animal Welfare Institute, and the Animal Legal Defense Fund.