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The emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — so-called superbugs — is a global problem with both short- and long-term implications for human and animal health. The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified antibiotic resistance as one of the greatest threats to human health in all communities. In time, even simple infections, usually easily treated, may not respond to antibiotics.
Animal health providers, farming industries and even pet owners have an important role to play in reducing the overuse of antibiotics. The Australian Veterinary Association provides guidelines to reduce their use. These include avoiding use for infections not shown to be caused by bacteria; for example, some urinary tract problems, pancreatic disease, many gut problems and viral respiratory diseases.
Antibiotics should be used only after test results identify bacterial infection and, ideally, narrow-spectrum antibiotics are chosen on the basis of sensitivity testing. Treatment should be carried out only for the time required to eliminate infection. Unfortunately, in practice, the time and money required for such tests isn’t always easy to find in an environment where there’s emotional pressure to heal animals quickly and cheaply.
A holistic approach to animal health and wellness provides alternatives to antibiotic use. So what are some steps we can take, as animal owners and carers, to reduce antibiotic use?
- Avoid use of antibiotics where not required. Bacterial infection does not play a part in some common illnesses in veterinary medicine but antibiotics may be prescribed anyway.
- Use alternatives where safe and effective. It’s always best to consult your vet, or holistic vet, before using them. Natural treatments may cause side-effects in some individual dogs or cats. Never use essential oils in or on cats. (See below for some treatment options.)
- If antibiotics are prescribed for your pet, make sure you complete the entire course. If you have trouble giving the medications or you think they may cause side-effects, your vet or support staff can give you suggestions. Resistant infections can be passed on from pet to owner so always wash your hands, especially before eating.
- Practise good hygiene: wash your hands. No need to use antibacterial washes; soap and warm water are sufficient. Make sure you wash all surfaces of your hands, including the web between your fingers. (Follow with vitamin E cream if washing dries out your hands). As an alternative to antibacterial cleaners around the house, use hot water, vinegar and bicarb of soda. This will reduce the emergence of resistant bacteria and also reduce toxins your pet is exposed to.
- Use probiotics after courses of antibiotics to replenish good bacteria and support gut health and immunity.
- Preventative healthcare for your pet will reduce infections and the need for antibiotics. This includes judicious use (but not overuse) of vaccines, flea, mite and worm control and regular health checks (annually for younger pets; biannually for older pets) for early detection of health problems. Dental disease is one of the commonest health issues in pets, resulting in gingivitis, periodontal disease and the need for antibiotics and dental surgical procedures. Make sure your pet has a dental check every six months.
- Treat underlying health issues. Antibiotics are commonly used to treat skin infections secondary to allergies. By spending the time, and some money, to treat food, flea, contact and atopic allergies, you will reduce the incidence of yeast and bacterial infections requiring treatment.
- Use immune support, especially in patients at risk. Dogs and cats with immune diseases, older patients or patients undergoing chemotherapy or on other immune-suppressing medications may benefit from herbal immune and adaptogen support — eg echinacea, astragalus, Panax ginseng, medicinal mushrooms.
- Use specific organ support when pets are sick — eg probiotics to treat gut infections, milk thistle to treat liver infections. These will help improve response to treatment, and shorten antibiotic treatment times. Silymarin, an extract of milk thistle, has the added benefit of helping reduce the development of bacterial resistance.
- Buy organic produce. Increasing demand for organic free-range meat reduces the use of growth-promoting antibiotics. It also improves animal welfare.
Here are some simple alternatives to antibiotics you can use in pets (consult your vet first):
- Bacterial skin infections: calendula cream or tea rinse; in dogs, 10 per cent tea tree cream
- Yeast skin infections: apple cider vinegar diluted with water 1:3
- Infected wounds: calendula tea rinse (with added myrrh, frankincense and turmeric when wounds are slow to heal); medical honey
- Conjunctivitis: black tea rinse
- Cystitis: cranberry extract to help prevent coli infection (avoid if your pet has oxalate bladder stones)
- Diarrhoea: probiotics; herbs containing berberine such as Oregon grape root, a natural antibiotic for the gut
- Viral respiratory disease: echinacea; marshmallow
- Gingivitis: aloe vera gel
Pet owners and veterinarians need to work together and consider not just the short-term aim of treating infection or illness but the long-term health implications for our pet, ourselves and medicine into the future.
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