Animal welfare: the good approach to fight antimicrobial resistance
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has become a global concern due to its potentially devastating consequences for animal and human health alike. AMR results from the excessive or inappropriate use of antimicrobial agents, which can generate resistance in bacteria, so that these may no longer respond to antibiotic treatment. When antibiotic treatments become ineffective, the possibility of treating common infections is compromised, more expensive agents and therapies must be used, and when even the most recent therapies fail, the consequences can be extreme. The excessive recourse to antibiotics in human medicine is the major cause of AMR. However, the overuse of antibiotics in intensive animal production also contributes significantly to the emergence of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics used in human medicine.
Livestock farming is the sector in which antibiotics are more heavily (mis)used worldwide. In North America and Europe it is estimated that about 50% in tonnage of all antimicrobial production is used in food-producing animals. Pigs and poultry, as well as rabbits and dairy cows, are the species in which antibiotics have to be used in the highest quantities. The need for a massive and often preventative use of antimicrobials in livestock farming is a symptom and a direct consequence of poor animal welfare. Some practices that are common in the livestock industry and that increase the need for antibiotics are early weaning, transportation of very young animals over long distances in inappropriate conditions, increased production demands on the animals. Additionally, when animals are confined in intensive, overcrowded systems, the spreading of disease is an inevitable outcome. The inability to perform even the most basic natural behaviors increases stress levels and may cause a reduced immune response, thus predisposing the animals to bacterial infections leading to illnesses like respiratory diseases or diarrhoea. Better standards of animal welfare and good hygiene practices can be pivotal in reducing, and in some cases even eliminating, the need to use antimicrobials.
We are not opposed to the therapeutic treatment of individual sick animals with antibiotics. This is often essential to relieve suffering. It is the routine preventative use of antibiotics to which we are opposed. Such routine preventative use of antibiotics should be brought to an end. Disease should instead be prevented by good husbandry, good hygiene and good housing. The Dutch Policy on Good Practices in the Use of Antibiotics in livestock farming, launched in 2008, is an example of a successful approach to the problem. This strategy on the reduction and responsible use of antibiotics had the following key elements:
- Antibiotic reduction target: -50% by 2015 (reached, except for calves)
- Monitoring of antibiotic use per animal species
- Transparency and benchmarking of antibiotic use per herd and per veterinary surgeon
- Improved herd health (mandatory health plans, one contracted vet per herd, mandatory periodical veterinary herd inspections)
The management measures that significantly contributed to reaching the 58% total reduction in antibiotic use were not expensive, and included checking the animal housing and climate, giving animal behavior more attention, improving the quality of the drinking water, and applying better hygiene measures. However, it should be noted that still 200 ton of antibiotics are being used annually in the Netherlands, particularly for broiler chickens and fattening calves. In order to further reduce this quantity, it will be necessary to introduce more radical changes in the way farm animals are treated. Some good practices that can contribute to reduce the need for antibiotics are later weaning of piglets, avoidance of routine mutilations, elimination of long-distance transport of unweaned or very young calves, use of slower-growing broiler chickens. Lower stocking densities, as well as the availability of enrichment materials, can also be beneficial to animal health and welfare. We believe that there is abundance evidence to make the case that improving farm animal welfare is a win-win situation, for the animals and to save our antibiotics, and that this evidence can no longer be ignored.
Elena Nalon, DVM : firstname.lastname@example.org