5 Things All Pet Owners Should Know About Antibiotics

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It's a scary world out there with all those superbugs, antibiotic resistance issues and drug reactions. Which is why treating infections is a perennially confounding and controversial topic in both human and animal medicine. So now that cold and flu season is upon us, it’s a great time to review the key concerns antibiotics pose to both human and animal health.

Why? Because antibiotics are NOT just like any other drugs. After all, fighting infections from foreign invaders is fundamental to our ability to stave of the most obvious threats to both human and animal health. Historically high infectious disease death rates pre-antibiotics should be enough to impress anyone on that score.

Unfortunately, the preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrates that the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in both human and animal medicine (in animal agriculture, in particular) has led to the emerging risk of antibiotic resistance. In other words, because of their increased exposure to these important drugs in inappropriate ways, bacteria have become extra-adept at coming up with ways to evade their effects.

Hence, why so many veterinarians and physicians are becoming super-cautious when it comes to prescribing antibiotics. And given that bacteria can cross the species divide, that’s a problem for everyone –– not just for the individual humans or animals taking these drugs. After all, even the scariest multi-drug resistant, flesh-eating bacteria are equal-opportunity invaders. Most could care less whether they’re munching on you, a cow, your cat, or your kid.

With those not-so-happy thoughts in mind, here's my list detailing the top five things pet owners really need to know about antibiotics if we’re to do right by both the humans and animals who need them:

#1 Antibiotics are for bacterial infections …

… and that means they won’t work for every kind of infection. For example, colds and flus are caused by viruses and, as such, will NOT respond to antibiotics. Offering them in these cases only exposes a wider range of bacteria to these drugs, thereby increasing the chances for the development of resistant strains of bacteria.

#2 Making sure it’s the right antibiotic for the job

This is crucially important when it comes to treating most bacterial infections. But how to tell …?

Increasingly, veterinarians are testing the site of infection (ears, urine, skin, airways, wounds, etc.) to see what kinds of bacteria are affecting the area and which antibiotics will kill them best. This test is called a “culture and sensitivity” and it’s by far the best way to know we’re using antibiotics appropriately.

This is especially crucial if we’re not sure there’s a bacterial infection at play or not. For example, 95% of feline lower urinary tract disease patients are NOT suffering from bacterial infections and yet a huge proportion of these patients receive antibiotics unnecessarily. If we applied this test more frequently we’d be much more likely to use antibiotics more judiciously.

#3 Antibiotics aren’t without their risks.

Historically, both human medical and veterinary professions have been too quick on the draw when it comes to antibiotics. Indeed, in too many cases we still elect to shoot first and ask questions later, which not only means we’re using antibiotics in ways that court antibiotic resistance, but we’re making our patients sick in the process.

Ever heard the old quip suggesting that the disease is sometimes worse than the cure? Because antibiotics are fraught with side effects ranging from mild gastrointestinal upset to deadly autoimmune diseases, it’s especially important to take the use of these drugs very seriously and only when absolutely necessary.

#4 Three crucial words: “Take as directed!”

In other words, DON’T:

  • skip doses or fail to use the entire course of antibiotics as prescribed. Giving an antibiotic willy nilly or stopping short of the whole course can prove far worse than not using antibiotics at all.

  • start using an antibiotic you happen to have “left over from the last time.” This is a really bad idea not only because of what I’ve explained in #1, #2, and #3 above, but also because you should never have any antibiotics ever “left over” to begin with. (That is, unless you have to suddenly stop an antibiotic for a legitimate, doctor-directed reason.)

#5 Not so sure your veterinarian (or physician) is on board with these by-now well-accepted tenets of appropriate antibiotic use?

Get a second opinion. It’s never OK to live with uncertainty on this crucial issue. And just in case you’re the kind that likes to be more self-reliant than most, consider getting even better educated on the subject.

For more detailed reading on what’s right and not right in the world of antibiotics in animal health, check out The Bella Moss Foundation. This UK group is dedicated to the responsible use of antibiotics worldwide and its comprehensive website always offers the most practical and up-to-date information on the subject.

Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect and that I’ve never erred on any of these five key points I’ve listed above. In fact, I once recall a six-week course of antibiotics for my son’s never-cultured sinus infection (that turned out to be an allergy and NOT an infection).

Of course, we’re all guilty of wanting to go for what seems to be the most expedient course. Nonetheless, now that you know how it’s supposed to be done, how will YOU be approaching these drugs differently?