Why do farmers use antibiotics ? Do alternatives exists?

Managing the health of animals on farms may require the use of veterinary medicines, including antibiotics. No matter the type of farming practices used, like people, on occasion animals can get sick and farmers have a moral and legal obligation to keep their animals healthy and ensure they receive appropriate treatment. This is why farmers sometimes need to administer antibiotics.

Antibiotics can only be used by farmers to treat sick animals at the direction of a veterinarian. Antibiotics are prescription-only medicines in Europe and are therefore only available for use by farmers following diagnosis by a veterinarian and after provision of a veterinary prescription. 

The veterinarian can prescribe antibiotics to control disease in a group of animals where one or more animals are already sick, to prevent the spread of an infection where no appropriate alternatives are available. The veterinarian can also prescribe antibiotics for an individual animal or a restricted number of animals to prevent infections when the risk is high, for instance following certain surgical procedures Antibiotics cannot be used routinely nor to compensate for poor hygiene, inadequate husbandry or poor farm management. In Europe farmers have signed up to the Responsible Use principles as set out by the European Platform for the Responsible Use of Medicines in Animals(EPRUMA) under the best-practice framework for the use of antibiotics in food-producing animals. EPRUMA sets out guidance on how to stimulate optimal animal health as part of a farm management plan, which aims at reducing the need for antibiotics. 

This is based on a holistic approach of minimising disease through infection prevention approaches including:

  • Biosecurity: a set of preventative measures aiming to keep groups of animals healthy or to limit the spread of diseases within an animal population
  • Good housing and ventilation
  • Good hygiene
  • Appropriate nutrition
  • Regular monitoring of health and welfare
  • Animal health planning
  • Use of diagnostics
  • Vaccination
  • Reporting any adverse events to the pharmacovigilance system

Aren’t there alternatives to using antibiotics?

When an animal is hit by a bacterial disease, there is no alternative to antibiotic treatment for that animal. But some infection prevention actions and productsexist which help to reduce the needfor antibiotics; these can be broken into two main categories: 

  • Preventive: biosecurity, good housing and ventilation and also the use of vaccines that protect animals from specific diseases
  • Supportive: those products which help to maintain the animal in good health, for example optimal nutrition and probiotics

Whilst there are currently no therapeutic alternatives to antibiotics authorised for use in livestock in Europe, there are however a number of susceptibility enhancing productse.g. virulence modifier. 

Nutrition, can play a very important and even critical function in the maintenance of optimal animal health and welfare. Feed additives used in feed for farm animals are pivotal contributors to ensuring adequate nutrition and optimal animal welfare. Such ingredients not only ensure the safety of feed (e.g. reducing the presence of undesirable microorganisms), but they can also improve digestibility and maintain the balance of the animal’s gut flora, supporting their welfare, resistance and resilience to eventual infections or stressors.