Antibiotic Use Is All About Animal Welfare

Prevention of disease often provides the best outcome. ( PORK )

Written by Carissa Odland, DVM, Pipestone Veterinary Services

In March, I traveled to San Diego, Cal., for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians annual meeting. This meeting was attended by 1,200 leaders in the swine industry to talk about our passion—taking care of pigs.

One of the main topics discussed was antibiotics. There were several presentations around antibiotic use in pigs—everything from disease prevention practices, to avoiding the need for antibiotics, to farmer experiences on a “Never Ever” antibiotic program, to the welfare implications of raising pigs without antibiotics.

When the swine veterinary community is spending a significant portion of their annual meeting on a specific topic, you know it is an area that we are deeply committed to and passionate about. There are three reasons why we use antibiotics in veterinary medicine:

  1. Treat disease
  2. Control disease
  3. Prevent disease

The third reason (prevention) is being scrutinized, with some critics calling this unnecessary. By definition, using an antibiotic for “prevention” is treating an animal or group of animals before clinical signs of disease have occurred. These animals are in a high-risk situation for getting a bacterial infection.

So, why would I as a veterinarian prescribe medication for prevention? 

The veterinarian makes this decision based on knowledge of how bacteria move through a population and the dynamics within that specific group of pigs. Just as when antibiotics are used for treatment, antibiotics used for prevention also require a prescription from a veterinarian.

Lower levels used for prevention

It is also important to understand that using an antibiotic for prevention or control necessitates lower doses than a treatment dose. Administering an antibiotic prior to the onset of clinical signs can prevent severe illness and reduce the need for higher-dose treatments later. This uses fewer antibiotics overall and improves the welfare of the animal. I would argue the welfare implications around antibiotic use are really at the heart of this debated topic.

As we have shared in other blog posts, antibiotics are not the first choice for preventing disease. During our annual swine veterinarian meeting, new technologies and new tools for prevention of disease to avoid the need for antibiotics were also discussed. For example, biosecurity technology, vaccinations, nutritional additives and facility design are all aspects to evaluate for each individual farm as part of a disease prevention discussion.

It’s a team effort

The veterinary community is working together to protect the efficacy of antibiotics for generations to come. Antibiotics are a crucial tool for maintaining animal welfare, whether the need is to treat, control or prevent disease. Work with your veterinarian on a disease prevention plan to decide what methods (whether antibiotics, vaccines or others) will provide the best animal welfare outcome for your herd.