It’s getting a lot of media attention these days. From news articles to health websites, the issue of antibiotic resistance is causing a lot of concern, and rightly so. We mostly hear about it in connection to human medicine, but the fact is, our companion animals are also facing problems with antimicrobial resistance.
Why is antimicrobial resistance happening?
Antibiotics and similar antimicrobial agents have been used successfully for decades to treat human and animal patients for infectious diseases. However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the organisms they are designed to inhibit or kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective. In short, in both human and veterinary medicine, the major cause of emerging resistant bacteria is the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. Other practices contributing towards resistance include antibiotic use in livestock feed (more on this later). Household use of antibacterials in soaps and other products is also a culprit.
Infectious organisms that develop resistant strains can be classified as bacteria (e.g. methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and pseudointermedius (MRSP)), viruses like canine influenza, fungi and parasites.
Resistant infections most often afflict animals with weakened immune systems, and those with chronic debilitating diseases, cancer, or malnutrition. Resistant infections can also arise due to chronic (long term) use, inappropriate dosing or inappropriate selection of antibiotics.
Those infected with antimicrobial-resistant organisms are more likely to require longer and more costly therapy, and may even die as a result of the infection.
The development of “superbugs”
Antimicrobial resistance to one or more drugs is being seen in a growing number of disease-causing organisms (pathogens). Pathogens resistant to multiple antibiotics are considered multi-drug resistant (MDR) or “superbugs”. Exposure to an antibiotic naturally selects for the survival of those microbial organisms that have developed the genes for resistance. This occurs by spontaneous or induced genetic mutation, or by horizontal gene transfer from other bacterial species. Thus, a gene for antibiotic resistance may readily spread through an ecosystem of bacteria.
Greater need for alternative treatments
As resistance towards antibiotics becomes more common, so does the need for new antibiotics. However, there has been a continuing decline in the number of newly approved drugs. Since 2008, only two new antibacterial drugs have been approved for human use. The cost of development, strict FDA testing guidelines, and profit margins are all reasons companies are abandoning the search for new medications. Antibiotic resistance therefore poses a significant clinical threat – and that means there’s a greater need for alternative treatments.
A healthy diet is paramount
Eating a healthy diet equates to being healthier. This philosophy is no different for our four-legged friends. Providing a high quality balanced diet is the most important preventative tool. The use of appropriate supplements is also key when treating animals with underlying diseases.
When choosing a diet for your animal, keep in mind that antibiotic drugs are also used in animals intended for consumption, such as cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and fish. The World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded that inappropriate use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is an underlying contributor to the emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance in animals, and that the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in animal feeds should be prohibited. However, the regulation of antibiotic use in food animals has been limited to reducing drug residues in meat, egg and milk products, rather than addressing concerns over the development of antibiotic resistance.
On April 11, 2012, the FDA announced a voluntary program to phase out unsupervised use of drugs as feed additives, and convert approved over-the-counter uses for antibiotics to prescription use only, requiring veterinarian supervision. In December of last year, the FDA announced the commencement of steps to phase out the use of antibiotics for promoting livestock growth.
In the meantime, look for a pet food made from meats that are as cleanly raised as possible. Some premium pet food companies now offer products made from antibiotic-free meats.
Supplements for strong immunity
Many supplements and alternative therapies can help promote a healthy immune system, treat resistant infections and prevent disease.
• Manuka honey has shown great promise in treating antibiotic-resistant infections, including MRSA and MRSP. Hydrogen peroxide is one of the main antibacterial components of all honey, and some honey also contains methylglyoxal (MG). Manuka honey has very high levels of MG – it’s labeled as the Unique Manuka Factor (UMF). Manuka honey is used by placing a thin layer over the area of concern; this should be done under the supervision of a veterinarian.
• Green or black tea poultice works amazingly well for small areas of localized skin irritation, crustiness or infection. Before using antibiotics, select either green or black tea, depending upon the animal’s coat color. Make the tea, let it cool, use a wet nondripping tea bag as a poultice for the affected area, and leave on for five to seven minutes. The tannins and polyphenols in tea are antimicrobial, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory.
• Murphy’s Oil soap is a very effective, simple vegetable oil cleaner from the grocery store. It helps soothe and remove the itchiness from dry flaky skin and can prevent the problem from progressing to a secondary skin infection. Wet the affected area, apply a thin strip of undiluted Murphy’s Oil, gently massage into the skin with your fingers as it lathers, leave on for five to ten minutes and gently rinse off. Repeat as often as needed to soothe skin and relieve scratching.
• Polyunsaturated fatty acids (ALA, EPA, DHA) come from many fish and plant oils including wild salmon, sardines, herring, cod, trout, green-lipped mussel, anchovies, krill, algae extract, flaxseed, hemp, olive, canola and soybean. These are used for their anti-inflammatory, immuneboosting and anti-cancer properties.
• Probiotics include various strains of Enterococcus, Bacillus, Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These bacteria help support natural gut flora, leading to a healthy intestinal tract. This in turn will increase absorption of key minerals and vitamins. Probiotics have been shown to enhance the immune system, decrease cancer-stimulating enzymes and clinical signs secondary to allergies, resolve chronic UTI, and help with chronic intestinal issues.
• Multivitamins and immune-boosting supplements include sterolins and sterols from fruits and vegetables (e.g. ModuCare by Thorne Veterinary) and Chinese herbal therapy, a safe alternative treatment that has been shown to boost the immune system and decrease allergic responses. Antibiotic resistance is a serious and worrying problem, but you can do a lot to protect your companion by keeping his immune system strong and avoiding the overuse of antibiotics if and when he does get sick.
Editor’s note: consider oil of oregano
Another way to boost your dog’s immune system and treat infection is with oil of oregano. It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that strengthen immunity and help prevent and treat bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections.
Scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol demonstrated that oil of oregano can even defend against tough bacteria like MRSA – their research found it was better at eliminating microbes than many pharmaceutical drugs.
Companies such as OregaPet (oregapet.com) offer a range of natural first aid and oral hygiene products for dogs.