When faced with a problem, it’s human nature to seek a magic bullet—a solution that’s fast, effective, safe, and easily accessible. When it comes to infections troubling our furry friends, antibiotics can fulfil some of these wants, but not necessarily all of them. Sometimes, turning to antibiotics, or even just choosing the wrong antibiotic, may cause more harm than good. These negative effects can impact not only Fluffy, but also other animals and even the people around her.
Antibiotics are definitely remarkable tools that play a significant role in the quality of life we enjoy today. They cure infections that previously would have led to suffering and even death. They are a critical component of every medical care provider’s toolbox. But to keep these medications strong, we need to use them the right way.
Every time an antibiotic is used, there’s a microscopic battle waged between the drug and the bacteria it’s targeting. Winning this battle is obviously in Fluffy’s best interests, but it also has much wider-reaching implications in maintaining the effectiveness of these drugs. If the battle is won, then all is well. But if victory is incomplete when we withdraw our forces, we’ve dealt our team a great blow. Not only have we hand-picked the strongest of our enemies to carry on, we’ve also let them in on some of our top-secret defence tactics.
Bacteria are small but mighty adversaries, largely due to their remarkable adaptability. Some bacteria can double their numbers in as little as 10 minutes. This means that if our antibiotic attack is only partially effective, we are only building a stronger adversary by weeding out the weak and allowing the strong to flourish. In these cases, infection can come back with a vengeance.
So, how are we inadvertently sharing our secrets with our microbial opponents? Often the answer is that we’re being too kind to them by not fighting long or hard enough. You know that pesky prescription label on Fluffy’s pill vial? It’s there for a reason! Not following these directions correctly can be exactly what those bacteria need to regroup and come back stronger than ever. Another way to educate bacteria rather than wipe them out is to give too low of a dose. This is just one reason it’s very important to not share leftover antibiotics between pets (never mind where these leftovers came from).
You know that saying ‘don’t bring a hand grenade to a knife fight’? The same can be applied to prudent antibiotic use. We want to reserve the ‘big guns’ for when they’re really needed, since revealing them unnecessarily invites the development of resistant superbugs—if they can resist these drugs, they may be able to resist just about anything! And that’s bad news, both for Fluffy, and for her animal and human friends with whom she may share this nasty infection. Many antibiotics are shared between human and veterinary medicine, and resistance is also shared.
But why worry? Can’t we just keep ahead of the bacteria by coming up with new antibiotics? Unfortunately, antibiotic development is a very slow and expensive process, and many of the major drug companies have simply stopped looking. This means that we can’t count on new weapons; we must fight strategically with what we’ve got.
Our open access to antibiotics for veterinary use is a great privilege and responsibility. We must work as a team to ensure we’re using antibiotics only where appropriate (this is why testing is often required for diagnosis and follow-up), carefully choosing the type of antibiotic to preserve their strength, following the prescription, and as much as possible, not using antibiotics at all. Topical antiseptic washes and even honey can be very effective at fighting surface infections, and we all know that the best way to keep a secret is to say nothing at all.
Dr. Amy Hayduk grew up in the Nass Valley of northwest BC and graduated from the Western College of Veterinary medicine as the 2014 “gold medalist” after completing a master’s degree in biochemistry at the University of Northern BC. She enjoys all aspects of mixed animal practice with special interests in small animal surgery and equine medicine.