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Antibiotics are vital to animal health and welfare. So how do we stop growing levels of drug resistance?

by Carel du Marchie Sarvaas | Health for Animals
Wednesday, 14 November 2018 09:05 GMT

Employees give a vaccination shot to a chicken at an hatchery in Mangaon, south of Mumbai February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Calls to eliminate antibiotic use among food-producing animals are often well-intentioned but they can be counter-productive when inappropriately applied.

Carel du Marchie Sarvaas is executive director for HealthforAnimals, the global animal medicines association. 


Raising farm animals without using antibiotics is often touted as a straightforward solution to the growing issue of drug resistance and the threat it represents to human health.

But this approach alone is ineffective at tackling antibiotic resistance in people and moreover, it doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is animal disease.

Removing antibiotics from farms does not stop animals from becoming sick nor an outbreak from spreading. Whenever disease is present, the need for antibiotics remains.

How do we know? Recent studies have probed the impact of going “antibiotic free” on livestock farms, and their findings are alarming for anyone concerned with animal welfare.

In one survey of 565 veterinarians and producers, the majority said antibiotic-free farms suffered higher levels of disease, mortality and culling rates, painting a picture of cattle, swine, sheep and poultry enduring unnecessary illness.

Another study tracked the incidence of three conditions associated with poor animal welfare in broiler chickens, finding that “eliminating access to antibiotics can lead to increased risk and severity of specific diseases.”

According to the chief economist of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the mortality rate among broiler chickens raised without antibiotics can be up to 50 per cent higher than for conventionally raised chicken.

While the calls to eliminate antibiotic use among food-producing animals are often well-intentioned, they can, when inappropriately applied, negatively impact overall health and welfare and be counter-productive.

Instead, the best way forward is to reduce the need for antibiotics by preventing disease in the first place.

In the first instance, this requires more widespread support for vaccination research and delivery, and protection of animals from infectious diseases through good hygiene and biosecurity.

Vaccination is the most effective way to stop disease from taking hold in an animal and spreading throughout a flock or a herd.

Where vaccines exist, global efforts should focus on ensuring farmers and their livestock have access to them. Where a vaccine doesn’t currently exist, scientists should be properly supported by both public and private sectors to develop them.

Farmers must also then receive better training and support in maintaining good overall animal health, which also reduces the likelihood of livestock falling ill.

The animal health sector is constantly innovating to provide an ever more comprehensive range of products to support animals’ well-being. These include more nutritional feed, immune stimulants to help boost natural defences, and parasiticides to protect against common tick-borne diseases.

Finally, our best chance of treating and containing an outbreak if one does unfortunately occur is through early detection and diagnosis.

Apps, web services and training can help farmers spot signs of disease and alert veterinarians, who are increasingly better supported by new technologies that improve the speed and accuracy of both the diagnosis and treatment.

But ultimately, we need to stop stigmatizing the use of antibiotics and instead foster greater trust in veterinarians, who are the ultimate custodians of animal health.

While the goal of every veterinarian is healthy animals, disease prevention is sadly not a perfect science and some outbreaks will be inevitable.

For this reason, antibiotics remain a vital part of animal healthcare. Like us, animals have the right to be protected from disease, but they also have the right to be treated when necessary.