Antibiotics were discovered in the 1920s. Before their discovery, many people died from minor infections such as pneumonia. The medical discovery was life changing, increasing life expectancy and making surgeries much safer. By the 1940s, the use of antibiotics was becoming common. Today, the safety of the widespread use of antibiotics is questioned. Concerns about the overuse of antibiotics is something that the medical, human and veterinary community continues to study.
First, one needs to understand the basics of antibiotics, how they work, when they should be used, when they shouldn’t be used, the risks involved, and concerns about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotics are products that kill or prevent the reproduction of micro-organisms, in particular bacteria. These substances can occur naturally (for example, honey has natural antibacterial properties) or be synthetic or artificial. Some antibiotics kill a wide range of bacteria are called broad-spectrum, while other antibiotics kill only a few types of bacteria, so they would be labeled narrow-spectrum. Either way, it’s important to remember that only bacterial infections can be cured with antibiotics.
If your pet has an infection, your veterinarian will need to assess whether the illness is caused by a bacterial infection, a virus, or even a fungus. The treatment of diseases caused by invisible invaders is a complex issue. Since diseases are caused by microorganisms (organisms invisible to the naked eye), your veterinarian will need to do some detective work. This will likely require diagnostic tests to assess. Your veterinarian can take a culture that will be sent to the laboratory. In the laboratory, microorganisms are allowed to grow. They are then examined under a microscope to determine what type of pathogen your pet is infected with. Fungal infections are treated with antifungals, bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics, and many viral infections have no treatment other than treating the symptoms when they occur in the patient’s body. If a fungal or viral infection is treated with antibiotics it will have no benefit, in fact it can make things worse.
Bacteria are naturally present in your pet’s body and most are good. So when antibiotics are used to treat an infection, both good and bad bacteria are killed. This can cause side effects on the digestive system, such as diarrhea, due to the destruction of good bacteria in the gut. Other common side effects of antibiotics are nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain. Allergic reactions may include hives or breathing problems (anaphylaxis).
In addition to these risks, there are much more serious concerns. It is estimated that up to half of antibiotic use is unnecessary. The excessive use of antibiotics has led to antibiotic resistance. Although antibiotics are a very powerful germ-fighting tool if used responsibly, over time overuse has caused super bacteria that have evolved so that antibiotics no longer work on them. This development poses a great threat to domestic animals and humans. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have adapted to survive through antibiotic treatments, and then the stronger bacteria are left alive to replicate. These super bacteria are very dangerous because there are very few or no treatments available to kill them.
Finally, it is important to follow a few safety steps for a safe future for people and pets. First, trust your veterinarian’s advice about what treatments your pet needs. Allow necessary diagnoses to be made so that appropriate medications can be prescribed. If your pet is prescribed antibiotics, always use them as directed.
Do not skip doses or interrupt treatment until the entire treatment is completed. If your vet instructs you to discontinue an antibiotic, the remaining medication can be discarded in the King County Sheriff’s Office drug drop box.
Never save them for later, as a partial course of antibiotics will not be effective. With responsible prescribing by healthcare professionals and diligent use at home, antibiotics can continue to be valuable tools in saving lives.
Dr. Kaitlen Lawton-Betchel grew up in Lemoore. Alumnus of West Hills College and Fresno Pacific University, she graduated from Midwestern University in Arizona with her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Business Certificate. Dr. Kait currently practices at Karing for Kreatures Veterinary Hospital, also known as K+K.
The hospital is located at 377 Hill St., Lemoore. To make an appointment, call 559-997-1121.
His column is broadcast every other Thursday.