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How Pets Can Help in the Fight Against AMR

Pets make wonderful companions. It’s the reason why many of us share our lives and homes with them. But pets and owners may not realise that they share much more than that. 

We spoke to Professor Luca Guardabassi, a specialist in antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in companion animals, who helps lead the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) One Health committee, to understand how pets have an impact on AMR in humans and why pets may be one of the ways to future-proofing global antibiotic use.

What does responsible antibiotic use look like from an individual pet owner and from a veterinarian’s point of view? 

Bacterial infections in animals are often secondary to a predisposing factor. For example, allergies are very common in dogs and may facilitate skin infections, which are by far the most common reason for antibiotic prescription in a small animal veterinary practice. 

The number one way owners can prevent bacterial infection is for the owner to feed their animal a good diet that is appropriate for their age, breed and health conditions. 

Meanwhile, for the vet, it is important to identify and whenever possible, eliminate or attenuate such predisposing factors to prevent antibiotic use. It’s also important that they don’t dispense treatment as a result of pressures from pet owners. Studies show that some pet owners put pressure on veterinarians to prescribe antibiotics, as owners can feel that they have wasted an appointment if the veterinarian doesn’t prescribe a treatment. 

How does the transfer of bacteria take place between pet and owner? 

It’s not just during the treatment process. Once this has happened the pet will be colonised with resistant bacteria, which can then be transferred through direct contact, such as stroking and petting, but also through contamination of the household. 

It’s very easy for pet owners to avoid this transmission of bacteria through basic hygiene such as, washing their hands after touching their pets, avoiding intimate contact through face licking and sharing a bed. Keeping the household clean will also help. This is of particular importance if pets are in contact with members of the family household who have developing or compromised immune systems – young children and the elderly in particular.  

What would be your advice to anyone who is concerned about bacteria transmission?

The benefits of having a pet as a companion far outweigh any dangers of AMR. It’s simply about ensuring you are being a responsible pet owner. 

In fact, the transmission can go both ways: we, as humans, share our bacteria with our household pets. Because of this it’s very difficult to assess the direction of these transmissions. Let’s suppose that the human is a nurse or a doctor that is exposed to a hospital environment day-to-day. In this instance, it is more likely that the owner is the source of the infection.

Are changing global trends in pet ownership changing the AMR problem?

The transport and sale of animals for pets across the globe has changed the AMR landscape somewhat. In regions like Southeast Asia, the levels of AMR are significantly higher in both the human and animal population, so this increases the risk of resistant bacteria passing to the local pet population.

If you could send a message to pet owners and veterinarians around the world, what would it be?

Be aware of the importance of antibiotics and of the risks of AMR transmission. We have a limited number of antibiotics available in veterinary medicine, so it’s very important to use them correctly to preserve their efficacy and make sure that we and our pets will have medicines to control bacterial infections in the future.

What is the future of treatment for antibiotics?

In the near future truly new antibiotics will be developed, but they will most likely be licenced for human use only. We need them desperately in human hospitals. It is essential to educate and train veterinarians to use the current veterinary antibiotics prudently, by this we mean only if necessary and preserve the most powerful ones for treatment of severe, otherwise difficult-to-treat infections. 

Meanwhile, diagnostic, point-of-care tests should be developed to improve the use of antibiotics in companion animal practices. Such tests would guide the veterinarian to take important decisions on whether an antibiotic is needed or which antibiotic is the most appropriate. Livestock practitioners can also make use of quick and cheap diagnostic testing to be performed on farms. There is a tendency among veterinarians not to use diagnostic testing because it is an additional cost to the farmer or the pet owner, but having inexpensive, quick diagnostic tests that can be used onsite would be a great way to rationalise the use of antibiotics in veterinary practices in the future. 

Do you think the role of the vet will change in future to help reduce AMR?

There are still many countries where antibiotics can be purchased by the owner, or the administrator, without the need for a prescription from a veterinarian. In these cases it’s essential that we stress the need for owners and farmers to always seek veterinary assistance whenever their pet or livestock are unwell. 

Luca Guardabassi trained and practised as a veterinarian before studying for his PhD in microbiology with a focus on antimicrobial resistance. He is Professor in Antimicrobial Resistance and Antibiosis at the University of Copenhagen and a Member of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) One Health Committee. He is involved in numerous initiatives to educate veterinarians on prudent antibiotic use, including an upcoming course on “Challenges in Veterinary Hospital Infection Control and Antimicrobial Stewardship” that will be held at the annual congress of the British Society of Veterinary Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) in Birmingham, 4 April 2018. The course is organized by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ESCMID) Study Group for Veterinary Microbiology (ESGVM). Registration will soon be open at: