Make the Shot Count

by Jamie Henneman

All over-the-counter animal antibiotics will soon require a veterinarian’s prescription, according to a new guidance document released by the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA).  The proposed regulation is an effort to “limit medically important antimicrobial drugs in animals that are considered necessary for human health.”

Common antibiotics like tylosin, penicillin and tetracycline are some of the drugs that are currently available over the counter but would be restricted by the new FDA rule.

The FDA said due to the “scientific evidence concerning antimicrobial resistance” the use of antimicrobials “should involve a veterinarian.”

The new rules would only make antimicrobials available by prescription if accurate diagnosis of the bacterial disease is present and if a vet determines that the drug will be effective.  The vet must also verify that “no reasonable alternatives for intervention exist.”

The new guidelines come from both a government and consumer push for animal agriculture to limit the use of antimicrobials.

According to the FDA, nearly two thirds of medically important antimicrobials sold in the U.S. go to food animals.  In 2017, 42 percent of these drugs were given to cattle as opposed to any other industry.  Chicken production, for example, was only responsible for five percent of medically important antibiotics.

It is viewed that this high use of antibiotics in meat production ties into antimicrobial resistance that is growing in the U.S.  The Centers for Disease Control estimated in 2013 that at least 23,000 Americans die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year and at least two million get sick.  If this trend increases, experts predict that global deaths from drug resistant infections could reach 10 million per year by 2050, more than the current deaths from cancer.


Across The Board Changes…

The proposed FDA regulations would affect across the board access to antimicrobials, although the data suggests overuse is only present in certain segments of the cattle industry.

A 2017 USDA survey of feedlot operators found that upon entering the feedlot, 16 percent of cattle were injected with antibiotics to control or prevent disease because they were considered at high risk of becoming ill.  The same study found that 57 percent of feedlot cattle received the antibiotic tylosin to reduce the incident of liver abscesses caused by a high-grain diet.

However, the regulations will apply to all animals, regardless of the production method.

Preventing a cow-calf producer from getting needed antimicrobials at the local feed store will create a dilemma for producers used to doctoring their own animals.  Producers will have to decide if a vet call is warranted, or perhaps forgo the cost altogether.

Large animal vet Gaven Kuykendall warned that this kind of thinking can often cost the producer in the long run.  Kuykendall said he often gets calls from producers who have already tried “dosing” a sick animal with an antibiotic for several days before calling the vet.

“An animal that is improperly treated is worse off than an untreated animal,” he said.  “The medicine may cause the animal to linger until it is not profitable to keep it alive.  Producers sometimes also send that animal to the sale before the withdrawal period for the drug is complete, potentially putting contaminated meat in the food supply.”

Kuykendall said he is often “heartbroken” to get a call from a producer who has already tried doctoring an animal with antibiotics in the hope it will work.

“It’s heartbreaking to get a call on a case of pneumonia, for instance, and hear that the animal has been given 5cc’s of oxytetracycline every other day,” Kuykendall said.  “In that case, I know the animal won’t make it.”

Another unanticipated problem with the overuse or misuse of the antibiotics is that they become less effective and when a vet does come out, he is forced to use a much more expensive medicine.

“As vets, we almost assume that a sick animal has already been treated with penicillin, for instance, so we know we are going to have to use a more powerful, more expensive drug that can run as much as $5 or $3 per cc,” Kuykendall said.  “So, it gets down to where the rubber meets the road.  If I charge someone $100 to doctor a sick steer that is worth $900 but it recovers quickly, then they have saved the total value of the animal.  Not treating the animal or improperly treating it can result in the loss of the animal or it may become a poor doer that doesn’t gain the 150 pounds it needs for sale.”

Kuykendall, who is also a cow-calf producer with 100 head in Northern New Mexico, understands the rationale behind not calling the vet due to the expense in a market where margins are tight.

“One thing that isn’t being addressed here are the profit margins.  How is it that you can only get $1.42 at the sale barn for an animal and when you cross the street and buy a burger at McDonalds it’s worth $15 a pound?,” Kuykendall said.

Kuykendall said he is also wary of the additional regulations that will be handed down to vets who are expected to act as regulators over the antibiotic prescriptions.

“We already have mandates about writing prescriptions for feed that require feed directives for every bag.  Now the government is burdening the vet with making regulatory decisions about antibiotics as well or they may threaten to pull your license,” Kuykendall said.  “I can tell you this issue has caused a lot of heartburn.”


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