The Antibiotic Apocalypse: antibiotic resistance in pets

Have you heard of the antibiotic apocalypse?  A time in the future where antibiotic resistance is the norm and we will again start dying from minor, every day infections?  This is not science fiction, the risk is here and now.  We all have a role to play.  That includes our pets!


Responsible antibiotic use is something that every one of us has to take responsibility for.  We must all come to realize that misuse will result in the rapid development and spread of multi-resistant superbugs.  Superbugs (such as MRSA) are bacteria that are immune to the effects of some, or all, antibiotics.  The deaths these cause globally is on the rise with an estimated 700,000 people dying every year.  If this continues unchecked then by 2050 it is thought that 10 million people a year will die as a result, more than those dying of cancer.

But how does this affect our dogs and cats?  Well, they are just a susceptible to these infections and the bacteria they carry on their skin, up their nose, or in their gut can be the same that we carry in many cases.

As the problem of bacterial resistance has grown, there has been a major effort by vets as well as doctors to reduce the overuse or misuse of antibiotics.  There are many conditions and situations where antibiotics used to be given that can actually be treated just as well by other means.

When should my pet NOT get antibiotics?

Examples where antibiotics are generally not needed include:

  • Simple diarrhea or vomiting.

A simple tummy upset is seldom the result of a bacterial infection that requires antibiotic treatment.  The majority of pets will get better in a couple of days with nothing more than a bland diet and possible a binding agent or probiotic (although at the moment probiotics have been shown not make a huge difference).  If the diarrhea is very bloody, if a patient is running a fever or otherwise unwell then antibiotics may be used.  In cases where diarrhea is an ongoing issue then and a sample may be sent to the laboratory to see if antibiotics are needed.

  • Superficial skin infections.

If only the surface of the skin is infected then antiseptic creams or shampoos such as chlorhexidine are just as effective as antibiotics.  Deep skin infections do typically require antibiotics, often for 3 weeks or more, and any infection that fails to clear should again be cultured at the lab.

  • Mild kennel cough and other viral diseases.

Antibiotics do nothing to treat viral infections.  If we have a cold or the flu then antibiotics are useless, except in the rare cases where we also develop a bacterial infection.  Our cats and dogs are just the same.  TLC and possibly anti-inflammatories are what's needed, not antibiotics.

  • Small wounds.

Much like superficial skin infections, the majority of minor wounds can be treated with topical antiseptics.  Keeping the wound clean and allowing the bodies own immune system to do the rest will work in most cases.

  • After simple surgery such as neutering, most dental procedures and basic lump removal.

There is no need for antibiotics to be given during or after most short, routine surgery.  Surgery should instead be carried out in as sterile a manor as possible (apart from in the mouth of course!) and your pets body will do the rest at preventing any infection.  Antibiotics should only be used if infection is already present, if the surgery is going to take a long time, if implants are used (such as to repair a broken leg), or in other rare patient specific conditions.  The old fashioned long acting antibiotic injection after every surgery is a waste of time, money and is irresponsible.


image courtesy of the World Health Organisation


What if my pet DOES need antibiotics?

When antibiotics are needed, in many cases your vet will decide on the most appropriate antibiotic for that specific infection.  Infections in different parts of the body respond differently to different antibiotics.  In other cases, your vet may want to send a sample to the laboratory to check that the best antibiotic is used.  This is often the case when the course of treatment needed will be long, when the infection is life-threatening or where previous use of antibiotics had failed and resistance is a concern.  This test is known as a culture and sensitivity.  The lab see what bacteria grow and what antibiotics they are most sensitive to.

What can I do?

So what can you as an owner do to help fight the development of superbugs?  It's quite simple really, although it may require your pets cooperation!

  • Give the right dose, at the right time, for the complete treatment course.

  • Don't stop treatment early even if you think the infection is cured.

  • If you think you will struggle giving the medication, let your vet know. There may be another option such as a paste, powder or liquid rather than tablets.

It is only by all working together that we will have antibiotics available to us in the future.  A world without antibiotics is a scary thing to imagine.  It may seem like a single treatment of antibiotics in your dog or cat is insignificant but unless we all take responsibility it is a very real threat.

I hope this article helps you understand why your vet may not dispense antibiotics as you might expect.  After all we want to ensure our pets (and ourselves) are healthy long into the future as well as now!

If you have any questions or comments then I would love to read them in the comments section below.  Also consider signing up to our newsletter to make sure you don't miss out on future content and allow me to continue to help you and your pet live healthier, happier lives.

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