By Dr. Candice Chiu
It’s hard to talk about the use of antibiotics and probiotics exclusively in veterinary medicine as this subject has applications in human medicine as well as in agricultural practices.
If you have been a long term client at our clinic, you will probably have been given a probiotic for your pet for a variety of reasons. It seems like the rest of the world is finally catching up on the benefits of probiotics in both the medical and veterinary field. There are even suggestions of using probiotics in place of antibiotics for minor infections, which could indirectly help to reduce the rise of the superbug era.
No one is an island. From the moment we were born, bacteria, fungi, protozoans and viruses have quickly populated our entire bodies. In the past, bacteria were lumped together and universally viewed as enemies. Today, scientists are recognizing that every one of us is essentially an ecosystem of microscopic organisms. When in harmony, they feed off us, and in turn produce substances that help maintain the health of our ecosystem. Under normal circumstances, the body encounters many types of bacteria from our feet, nose, water, food, and objects we touch. In the healthy animal, this ecosystem is stable and ingested pathogens are cleared out quickly, like a community shunning a newcomer. However, in large numbers, pathogens can mount an invasion and overwhelm this balance, resulting in illness.
Antibiotics also exert a dramatic shift in the stability of this ecosystem. While there is no denying the efficacy of antibiotics in killing off the primary pathogens, they unfortunately also kill off other non- pathogenic microorganisms in the gut. This is like a city being bulldozed to the ground and whoever is able to start building quickest wins the monopoly. Opportunistic pathogens that are different from the initial pathogens we are trying to kill are often very good at zeroing in on this window of time to colonize before the other native microorganisms can repopulate.
The Current Antibiotic Crisis
When Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, he cautioned that bacteria will develop antibiotic resistance if used improperly. He raised this issue way before studies confirmed the presence of resistance.
In 2017, Health Canada will ban the use of the majority of antibiotics for the purpose of growth promotion in agriculture. How does the use of antibiotics help livestock grow? The simple answer is, with industrialization, agriculture has required larger feed lots, and animals are forced to live in an unnatural habitat. Livestock are crammed into herds where infections spread easily. Although a simple infection may not kill the herd, the body’s immune system requires energy to fight off any infections; Energy that could have been used to grow meat. By using antibiotics at sub-therapeutic doses, farmers can ensure that all the energy they feed the animals is giving them the maximum yield in meat, milk and egg production, hence more profits. This type of indiscriminate use of antibiotics in our food system selects for antibiotic resistant bacteria. When these animal products make their way to our table, we take on these bacteria and their resistant genetic material. Most of us still have good immune systems to fight them off, but when we are immunocompromised and require the help of antibiotics, it may become tricky to find the right pharmaceutical agents if they have become useless against these superbugs.
At this moment, farmers can acquire antibiotics over-the-counter from any farm supply store without veterinary prescription. It is estimated that 80% of the antibiotics in the world are used in agriculture. This move from Health Canada will no doubt make it harder and farmers will think twice before reaching for antibiotics.
Benefits of Probiotics
Putting politics aside, let’s look at the benefits of probiotics and why, here at East York Animal Clinic, we strongly advocate it for such a wide range of issues.
What is a probiotic? Probiotics are live bacteria, which, when ingested, can maintain a sufficient number to give benefits to the host. Best of all, probiotics can be taken for long periods of time without any side effects. Thus far, some of the mechanisms of its actions are still being studied, and there are some benefits that are already known:
1. Prevention of disease: All microorganisms compete for the same resources, such as the nutrients from the food we eat, and the space on our gastrointestinal walls. By setting up residence on the gastrointestinal wall, benign microorganisms and probiotics help to stop invading pathogens from adhering to the gastrointestinal wall, thus preventing them from entering the rest of the body through the blood stream. Furthermore, since all microorganisms want to compete with each other for survival, they each produce their own weaponry; Chemicals or enzymes that kill off other types of microorganisms. In short, they keep each other in balance.
2. Nutritional Enhancement: The digestive system is not the sole player in breaking down food. Microorganisms play a key role in fermenting and producing short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids and a number of vitamins, which are then absorbed by the body to use. Without these microbes, a lot of what we eat would be wasted. In fact, studies in agricultural science have shown that probiotic use has similar growth enhancement effects in livestock as those of antibiotics, without the unwanted side effect of antibiotic resistance. The supplementation of probiotics also reduces the rate of infections in these livestock.
3. Prevention of post-antibiotic treatment syndromes: Most of us know by now that one of the side effects of antibiotic use is a change in the consistency of bowel movements. More and more health professionals recognize the benefit of giving probiotics when an antibiotic is dispensed. Some research also suggests that when a probiotic is used in conjunction with an antibiotic, it may help to shorten the duration or dose of the antibiotic treatment.
4. Stimulation of Immunity: Our immune system encompasses the whole body, but 70% of it is located in the gut. Taking care of the gut takes care of the immune system. Probiotic administration has been linked to increased white blood cell and immunoglobulin activity. It also helps to regulate the pH of the gastrointestinal tract. Both are responsible for helping to fend off pathogens and prevent other diseases processes.
5. Regulate inflammation: Inflammation is our immune system’s response to harmful stimuli and its primary role is to fight and clear infections. However, in some patients, the inflammation becomes so intense and uncontrollable that the immune system starts to attack non-pathological agents. This is what we call hypersensitivity or an allergy. In human infants, puppies and kittens, probiotic supplements help to improve clinical symptoms of eczema, dermatitis, etc. Other studies also show that patients receiving probiotics have a better retention of moisture in the skin.
So the next time your pets come in, don’t be surprised when we recommend probiotics even if he or she doesn’t have gastric upset. As probiotics gain mainstream attention, there is no doubt that we will find it plays a bigger role in the well-being of our animals and the general public as well.