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Protecting Your Pet From Antibiotic-Resistant Infections

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

antibiotic resistance

Story at-a-glance -

  • Antibiotic resistance is a situation in which bacteria develop the ability to survive and multiply in the presence of an antibiotic that at one time killed them
  • Antibiotic resistance is a global problem and some experts predict a post-antibiotic era in which even simple infections could be fatal
  • Rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in companion animals are rising at an alarming rate
  • The primary driver of antibiotic resistance is overuse of the drugs in both human and veterinary medicine, as well as factory farming
  • To keep your own pet safe, do not accept antibiotics for viral or fungal infections, insist on a culture and sensitivity test, and give antibiotics exactly as prescribed

As more and more bacteria become resistant to antibiotics, infections that were once easily resolved with antibiotics are returning with a vengeance. According to the Morris Animal Foundation, “Some experts are predicting a post-antibiotic era that sounds more like the Middle Ages than the 21st century, where even simple infections could be fatal.”1

Antibiotic-resistant infections are also on the rise in pets. Nationally, rates of antibiotic-resistant infections in companion animals are rising at an alarming rate.2

Most of us have heard of MRSA — methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus is a strain of bacteria naturally found in most animals, including humans. In your dog or cat, staph is naturally occurring bacteria on the skin, in mucous membranes, and in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Occasionally, pets become infected by their own flora. These are typically relatively mild infections that are easily treated. But when a pet’s normal flora develops resistance to antibiotics, things can get dangerous. When bacteria mutate and become resistant to even very powerful antibiotics, including methicillin, it can cause serious illness and even death in pets.

Given the seriousness of this issue, it’s imperative that we understand what antibiotic resistance is, how it develops, and what can be done about it to preserve the health of today’s pets as well as future generations, along with humans, and other species of animals.

Antibiotic Resistance is Exactly What It Sounds Like

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 many 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 created. A superbug is a strain of bacteria able to survive assault by multiple types of antibiotics. When your veterinarian can no longer eliminate bacterial infections with antibiotics, the life of your animal is threatened.

How Resistance Develops

In my experience, antibiotics are dangerously overprescribed in too many conventional veterinary practices, and antibiotic resistance can result from too frequent and unnecessary use of these drugs. In addition, dogs and cats are exposed to antibiotics when they eat food containing the meat of animals that were factory farmed, which includes about 99 percent of pet foods on the market today.

Antibiotic residues are passed up the food chain, so even if your veterinarian hasn’t prescribed unnecessary antibiotics to your pet, there’s a good chance your animal companion is exposed to them regularly through the food he or she eats. The exception would be if you’re buying free-range, organic meats and making your own pet food, or if you’re purchasing one of a very small handful of pet foods that contain free-range, organic meats.

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How You Can Help Curb Antibiotic Overuse and Resistance

First of all, it’s important to realize viruses and fungi do not respond to antibiotics, and when those drugs are dispensed to treat non-bacterial infections, it’s a classic case of indiscriminate overuse. Oftentimes, veterinarians simply don’t know how to help a sneezing or coughing or itchy pet and feel obligated to do something, so they send the animal home with an antibiotic.

1. Insist on a culture and sensitivity test — If you suspect your pet has an infection — or if your veterinarian makes a diagnosis of infection — before you agree to a course of treatment, if your vet doesn't suggest it, ask for a culture and sensitivity test. When a veterinarian prescribes an antibiotic without a bacterial culture and sensitivity test, he or she is making a guess at what type of organism is present and the best antibiotic to treat it.

Although lots of 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 unnecessary or inappropriate antibiotic is prescribed, the potential for resistance increases. A culture and sensitivity test gives your veterinarian two very important pieces of information: the precise organism causing the infection and the best antibiotic to treat it.

A culture is simply a sample from the affected area. It could be a sterile swab dipped in urine, or a swab of infected tissue, skin, or ear discharge. The sample is incubated and monitored for organism growth, which typically starts the following day.

When colonies of organisms form, each one is tested to determine what type of bacteria is present. The sensitivity portion of the test involves placing tiny amounts of different antibiotics on the organisms to see which ones the bacteria are the most sensitive (susceptible) to.

The minimum inhibitory concentration, or MIC, is the lowest concentration of antibiotic that prevents visible growth of bacteria, allowing the veterinarian to choose the correct antibiotic and dose to successfully treat your pet’s infection. The decision-making process must also involve choosing an antibiotic that can be administered by injection, orally or topically for optimum results in the specific area of the body where the infection is located.

A culture and sensitivity test takes a little extra time, usually a minimum of 72 hours, so you should be prepared to leave your veterinarian’s office without a definitive diagnosis of exactly what type of bacteria is growing, and without a prescription.

Only in an emergency situation should your veterinarian prescribe an antibiotic before the culture and sensitivity test can be performed. He or she can then switch medications if necessary when the test results arrive. Rest assured the additional time it takes to identify the type of bacteria present and the medication needed will allow precise treatment of your pet's infection rather than a hit-or-miss approach.

2. Give your pet the antibiotic exactly as prescribed — Waiting for a culture and sensitivity test will ensure your dog or cat heals more quickly and thoroughly. In addition, giving the proper dose of the antibiotic at the proper intervals and using up the entire prescription is important, even if your pet seems to be fully recovered before the medication has run out.

This will ensure the infection is completely resolved and prevent your pet from having to take another full course of antibiotics because the first one wasn’t fully administered, and the infection wasn’t effectively cleared.

I see this quite a bit with skin infections. The skin begins to get better within a few days to a week, and clients stop the antibiotic before the really deep infection is thoroughly treated. This not only increases the risk of developing antibiotic resistance, but also leaves the pet not fully treated.

Additional Recommendations

  • Make sure to provide your dog or cat with a high-quality pet probiotic 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.