Drug-resistant pets pose threat to public health

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 September, 2007, 12:00am

With some exceptions, Hong Kong's pet shops are not known for their humane and responsible treatment of animals. Given the high competition, low-profit margins and lack of government supervision, many shops simply cut corners. But until now, their business practice has been of concern mainly to animal protection groups.

However, some veterinarians now say they are seeing more drug-resistant cases among pets, especially dogs. In one case, only one out of 30 antibiotics worked on two dogs with pneumonia.

This can only stem from the abusive use of antibiotics. If this becomes more widespread it will have serious implications for public health because of the high number of people who own pets in our densely populated city. Many bacteria, such as salmonella and those that cause cat scratch disease, can infect humans as well as pets. It is possible that some owners have been improperly giving antibiotics to their pets, but the problem is likely to be more systemic.

A possible explanation for the abuse is that shop owners are using antibiotics on sickly puppies and kittens under their care, at least until they can be sold off. Pet shops like to sell them young while they are cute and appealing, but this also means the pups have to be weaned from their mothers before their immune system matures properly. This is coupled with the problem that many shops simply do not maintain proper hygiene, while animals are kept in small and crowded cages.

Still a question remains: where do they obtain the medicine? It can be from unscrupulous pharmacies in Hong Kong and across the border, but also from veterinarians themselves.

The situation with drug-resistant pets appears to be a mirror image of the health crisis over superbugs with humans. An alarming number of Hong Kong patients have become resistant to treatment for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and mutated strains of tuberculosis.

Health authorities said this partly stemmed from patients who eagerly demanded antibiotics and doctors who complied with their wishes without making sure they had completed the entire course of treatment. Is it not possible that a minority of veterinarians are handing out antibiotics too easily? We do not know.

But while we have specialists to deal with the drug-resistant crisis in humans, Hong Kong does not have expertise in veterinary pathology. We don't even have a veterinary school. However, the situation may soon warrant the attention of the authorities.

For now, it may be going too far to set up a licensing system for pet shops, which is always expensive to administer. However, officials in charge of public hygiene and animal welfare should at least start thinking about inspecting shops on a more routine basis to make sure they meet standards of cleanliness and humane treatment. The Veterinary Surgeons Board of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Veterinary Association should work with their members to educate and alert pet owners of the new danger.

At a minimum, the rise of drug resistance among pets causes heartache to owners, as their beloved animals, often treated like family members, have to be put down. At worst, we may witness drug-resistant pathogens that migrate from animals to humans, similar to what happened with the deadly bird flu and Sars. Right now, that has not happened. But veterinary and health authorities need to be on the lookout to make sure it stays that way.