Antibiotic resistance and your pets

Antibiotic resistance is commonly discussed amongst human healthcare – but how might it affect the future health of your pets?

What is antibiotic resistance?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described antibiotic resistance as one of the biggest threats to global health that we face today. It has even been claimed that more people will die from resistant infections than cancer in the future.

Antibiotic resistance occurs when bacteria continue to grow in the presence of antibiotics, i.e. drugs which are supposed to kill or inhibit them. Resistance is a natural phenomenon, which has been around for millions of years. The first antibiotics were created from fungi which produce chemicals to kill bacteria and over time these bacteria have evolved to survive them. Resistance is also caused by using modern day antibiotic drugs to treat infections, so it is important that we use them correctly.

We frequently hear of hospital ‘superbugs,’ i.e. multi-resistant bacteria, in the news and media. The most common example of this is MRSA and there is an animal equivalent called MRSP. These resistant bacteria pass on their resistance through genes in their DNA to other bacteria. There have been scientific studies showing that both animal and human bacteria can pass resistance to each other, so essentially it is helpful to think of human and animal antibiotic resistance as the same thing.

So is it too late – are we all doomed?

The good news is the answer is no! Antibiotic resistance is inevitable, but we all have a part to play in slowing it down. In recent years very few new types of antibiotic have been discovered, so we will rely on using the drugs we already have, to treat future generations of humans and animals.

What can you do to help?

  • Always finish the course of antibiotic drugs prescribed by your vet, even if your pet is getting better. This is particularly important in skin disease, as we will often treat for a period of time after the skin ‘looks better,’ to prevent recurrence of the infection.

  • Some antibiotics only work if they are given at the correct time. Giving more tablets at the wrong time won’t help to clear the infection any faster. If the label says ‘give one tablet every twelve hours’, then giving two tablets at once will mean the antibiotics will not be as effective in treating the infection and will make it more likely that resistant bacteria will develop.

  • A common misconception is that some antibiotics are ‘stronger’ than others. This is not the case. Using a high dose of antibiotics, which are good at killing round (cocci) bacteria, when the infection is caused by rod-shaped bacteria, won’t work. It’s all about choosing the right antibiotic for the job. This will often involve looking under a microscope to see what bacteria are present and taking a swab for culture to ensure the right antibiotic is used.

  • Don’t keep any leftover antibiotics at home for use ‘as and when’. This is particularly important for ear infections, where inappropriate use of antibiotic drops makes it much more likely to have resistance bacteria develop. You should always bring unfinished medications back to the hospital, where we will dispose of them for free.

  • ‘Prevention is better than cure’ is an age-old medical adage, which sums it up perfectly. Preventing infections, for example following surgery, by wearing buster collars or bandaging affected areas, can prevent the need for treatment with antibiotics. It is important that buster collars are kept on, even if your pet doesn’t like it and that any bandages that get dirty or come off, are replaced as soon as possible to reduce the chance of getting an infection.

  • Try not to ask for antibiotics. Your vet will perform a thorough clinical examination of your animal and use their experience and judgement to decide if your pet needs medication.

Antibiotics are essential for animal welfare and using them responsibly will ensure that they continue to work for both animals and humans in the future. Projects such as the World Health Organisation’s ‘One Health Initiative’ promote the belief that collaboration between human medicine and veterinary medicine will lead to sustainable and better public, animal and environmental health.