Antibacterial resistance is extremely topical. It seems as though over the last couple of years, we are hearing more and more about this in the news. But what does it mean and why do we care? Is this just some hoax that the media has thought up to scare us? The quick answer is no, it is not a hoax.
In fact antibacterial resistance affects you and it affects your pet. Antibacterial resistance is when individual bacteria develop the ability to survive (resist) when attacked by an antibacterial drug. This is a problem because as bacteria develop resistance, we are slowly losing treatment options. What happens when bacteria develop resistance to many types of drugs? The answer is that these bacterial infections will be harder to treat. These resistant bacteria are strong and resilient. They are called ‘superbugs’ for a reason.
What causes antibacterial resistance? Very often resistance is blamed on the generous use of antibacterial drugs in animals used for meat and in pets. But we can’t just blame the farmers or the veterinarians. Even in human medicine, we use far too many antibacterial drugs. This is because when antibacterial drugs were first discovered (like penicillin), we were never worried that there would be any consequences to prescribing them. In addition, antibacterial drugs were given more often than they were actually needed.
In a normal bacterial colony (a bunch of the same type of bacteria- like E. coli), there are only a few bacteria that are resistant to any given drug. When you treat bacteria with an antibacterial drug, only the resistant bacteria survive. These surviving bacteria then multiply and suddenly your entire bacterial colony is resistant! That is how superbugs (bacteria resistant to many antibacterial drugs) are created. But what does that mean for your pet? In veterinary schools across the world, students are being taught about the importance of antibacterial resistance. It is clear that veterinarians need to be careful about how often they prescribe antibacterial drugs, and must make sure that they choose the right drug that will kill all of the bacteria.
This means that over the next 10 years or so, treatment of bacterial infections will begin to change. More veterinarians are going to be cautious about using certain drugs. Also, is has been recommended that some bacterial infections undergo ‘culture and sensitivity’ tests. For example, if your cat has a urinary tract infection, your veterinarian may take a urine sample and send it out to a laboratory to be cultured to determine what type of bacteria it is. This way, the bacteria will have sensitivity tests to determine what the best antibacterial drug will be to kill all of the bacteria. This kind of testing will not be used for all bacterial infections but it is important for us to understand that testing can become more expensive. Even though it is more expensive, this is an important step to help avoid creating more antibacterial resistance by treating bacterial infections as effectively as possible. How else does antibacterial resistance affect your pet? Your pet can be infected with one of these superbugs. Superbugs are hard to treat, and it takes longer to get rid of the infection (because the antibacterial drugs aren’t working). The longer your pet has the infection, the more damage the bacteria can do.
The issue of how to use antibacterial drugs in pets is still pretty new but concerns about antibacterial resistance are all around us. There are news stories about outbreaks of disease at hospitals and these are almost always superbugs. Also, the use of antibacterial drugs in meat animals has been controlled for a long time. Some antibacterial drugs are altogether banned and cannot be used in cows, pigs, chickens, etc. Organic, hormone-free, and drug-free meat is becoming more common as people become concerned about the over-use of antibacterial drugs in food animals.
Antibacterial resistance is definitely a complex problem. Resistance is here; it is all around us and it affects everyone. Don’t be surprised if you find that veterinarians are taking this problem seriously. Over time you may begin to see your veterinarian changing the way he/she treats bacterial diseases. With their help, we should be able to keep people and pets healthy, and keep superbugs at bay.