Moving Towards Sustainable Global Use of Veterinary Antibiotics

Misuse of antibiotics

Penicillin has saved millions of lives since its discovery in 1928 by the famous Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming. Since then, scientists have developed antibiotics further and now there are hundreds of different types. Across the world, these drugs treat bacterial infections from acne to meningitis. Similarly, antibiotics have quickly become vital in veterinary care. These days, the lives of millions of animals are improved thanks to these vital drugs.

Puerto Cabello Following their initial discovery, reliance on antibiotics has increased throughout the twentieth century. Unfortunately, overuse and misuse has led to an increase in resistance. This is when a pathogen develops the ability to stop an antimicrobial from working against it. While antibiotic resistance in human pathogens is starting to become well-known, what of our animal counterparts and how does that affect human medicine?

Case study: India In 2018, scientists identified that antibiotic usage in dairy animals across Eastern Haryana, India, was influenced by herd size.1 Larger herds needed more antibiotics to manage disease, but were more likely ask a vet, rather than buy them over the counter. On the other hand, smallholder farmers tended to buy antibiotics over the counter without veterinary advice, but didn’t need as many.

superabundantly They also found a clear difference in education and affordability between farmers of large herds and smallholder farms. In some sub-regions in Haryana, there were cases of poor choice of antibiotics. These were usually associated with misconceptions, poor knowledge, false practices, easy access to antibiotics and absence of veterinary support. The authors concluded that “prompt action on antibiotic misuse coupled with continuing education and counselling …about prudent use of antibiotics” was necessary. Whilst this study highlights the difficulties faced, it also identifies what can to improve the situation.

What is the WHO’s advice use of antibiotics?

In 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published new guidelines on the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. The four main guidelines are as follows:

  1. Reduce overall use in food-producing animals. The less we use these powerful drugs, the less likely resistance is to develop.
  2. Do not use antibiotics for growth promotion. This happens when farmers treat their animals when there is no disease present, just to boost growth. Using antibiotics in this way can dramatically increase the speed of resistant strains developing.
  3. Reduce or eliminate the use as prophylactics. This is when producers treat animals with drugs to prevent them from catching disease. While it can be a useful method of disease management, widespread use of antibiotics promotes resistance.
  4. Do not use the antibiotics which are critically important to human health on animals. This seeks to reduce the resistance of bacteria to specific antibiotic groups. Quinolones, for example, are a group of antibiotics which treat serious Salmonella and E. coli infections. Both of these infections are significant risks to human health. As such, total resistance could potentially be disastrous.

Case Study: Namibia

In contrast to Eastern Haryana, Namibia was an early adopter of banning the use for growth promotion and preventive use. Instead, farmers embraced husbandry and welfare improvements and vaccination where possible. This helped to to reduce reliance on antibiotics, using them only as necessary to treat infections. This policy has paid dividends as their standards permit much of their meat to be exported into the EU where antibiotic use for growth promotion has been banned since 2003.

Case Study: European Union

In 2003, the EU banned the use of antibiotics in food animals for promoting growth. Since then, there have been substantial pushes to reduce antibiotic use in all areas of veterinary care. The British Veterinary Association, the largest veterinary community in the UK, has strong recommendations on the use of antimicrobials. These seek to limit and decrease antibiotic prescriptions and to prevent unnecessary use. Similar rules are in place across the EU. The vast majority of antibiotics are now only available through a vet. As a result of these measures, antibiotic resistance is relatively low where antibiotic usage is less.2

There is clearly evidence of best practice at a national level in some countries. However, elsewhere there is more work to be done in giving guidance and education to farmers and creating policies which help to protect the future against antibiotic resistance. Hopefully countries that still rely heavily on use of antibiotics in every-day practice can move towards a better program, led by clear guidance, education and veterinary support.


  1. Kumar & Gupta (2018) Veterinary World.
  2. Chantziaras et al. (2014) Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.