At a time when there’s much concern about antibiotic use and resistance, and when there’s talk about restricting antibiotic use in animals, it amazes me that some huge, illogical and easy-to-correct loopholes remain in the current system.

The approach to access to antibiotics for animals varies greatly in different countries:

  • In some, access to antibiotics for use in animals is tightly controlled, and these drugs are only available from veterinarians.
  • In some, pretty much anything is available over the counter.
  • In others (yes, including Canada and the US), most antibiotic use must be supervised by a veterinarian (via prescription), but people can still buy certain drugs over the counter and use them however they want – quite an illogical system.

One of the loopholes that allows individuals to use these drugs without veterinary supervision is the ready availability of a range of antibiotics at farm supply stores, feed stores and similar places. I’ve seen lots of completely illogical, ineffective (and ultimately irresponsible) antibiotic use in large animals from drugs obtained this way, with less common (but not uncommon) misuse in pets.

Another small but still relevant loophole is "fish antibiotics." Various antibiotics can be purchased over the counter in pet stores that are marketed for treatment of fish, but are the same as the antibiotics used in other pets (and people).  Unfortunately the internet also abounds with descriptions of how to treat your dog (or you) with fish drugs.

Why do these loopholes remain?

  • I have no idea. It’s just dumb. They probably just remain because governments haven’t bothered to do anything about it. It might be partly because it’s perceived as a minor contributor to antibiotic misuse (which fish drugs presumably are), but you can’t talk about the importance of such an issue and simultaneously ignore some parts of the problem.

What are the problems with this kind of free access to antibiotics?

  • One of the biggest issues is use of antibiotics when they are not needed, which is a common problem. When I was in mixed animal practice, it was far from rare to be called to treat animals that the owner had already treated (unsuccessfully) with his/her own antibiotics. Often the treatment was ineffective because of underdosing or inadequate frequency of administration (both of which will lead to treatment failure and an increased risk of antibiotic resistance). Not uncommonly, though, the antibiotics didn’t work because the animal didn’t actually have an infectious disease (a steer with a broken leg that was treated for a week with low dose penicillin jumps to mind), meaning antibiotic use just led to unnecessary delays, expense and the potential for resistance, not to mention animal suffering.

Is there any real benefit to having these drugs available over the counter?

  • Not that I can see. Sure, people save some money by bypassing veterinary involvement, but how often are treatable diseases improperly treated, resulting in unnecessary animal illness or death, and a loss of more money than a call to the veterinarian would have cost in the first place?  Animal welfare aspects need to be considered too.

Some people would put up a fight if these loopholes were closed, including some farmers who like to treat their animals without veterinary assistance (sometimes effectively, sometimes not), stores that sell the drugs and a small subset of people who think they can treat their animals with whatever drug they can track down.

Antibiotics are incredibly important drugs, for both humans and animals. Use of antibiotics in animals can lead to resistance in humans, and vice versa – despite the head-in-the-sand approach of the American Veterinary Medical Association and their infamous position “There is little to no evidence that restricting or eliminating the use of antimicrobials in food-producing animals would improve human health or reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to humans.

Concerns about overuse and misuse of antibiotics lead to calls to restrict antibiotic use in animals. Overuse and misuse are common, in both veterinary and human medicine, and they need to be addressed by both groups. However, antibiotics are needed in veterinary medicine to ensure proper patient care, limit pain and suffering and facilitate production of safe food. What we don’t need is excessive use, inappropriate use or use of antibiotics to make up for bad management practices, which are all things that are more likely in the absence of veterinary oversight.