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Antibiotic resistant bacteria can jump between healthy pets and owners

A new study has confirmed that antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as genes that play a key role in bacterial resistance, can be transmitted between healthy dogs and cats and their owners. The research will be presented at this year’s European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Lisbon, Portugal.

“Our findings verify not only the sharing of antibiotic resistant bacteria but also of resistance genes between companion animals and their owners in the community, underscoring the need for continuous local surveillance programs to identify the potential risk to human health,” said study co-author Dr. Juliana Menezes from the University of Lisbon.

Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria are commonly found in the intestinal tracts of most mammals, including humans. The majority of these bacterial strains are harmless, but some can cause threatening infections, such as blood poisoning. According to the researchers, the role of companion animals as potential reservoirs of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria is a growing concern.

The primary concern is the potential for infections caused by highly resistant strains, which can persist despite treatment with powerful antibiotics such as penicillin and cephalosporins.

In collaboration with Dr. Sian Frosini from the Royal Veterinary College and colleagues, Dr. Menezes set out to determine whether there is a crossover between healthy companion animals and their owners. The researchers also wanted to investigate how these resistant bacteria are generally spread. 

For the study, the experts analyzed stool samples from healthy people, and from the cats and dogs that live with them, across households in Portugal and the UK. Genetic sequencing was used to identify the bacteria and drug resistance genes present in each sample.

In four Portuguese households, resistance genes found in pets matched those found in their owner’s stool samples. In two of these households, the microbes in pets matched E. coli strains found in their owner’s stool sample.

“Sometimes the bacteria may not be shared, but their resistance genes can be,”  explained Dr. Menezes. “These genes are found in mobile bits of DNA, meaning that they can be transferred between different bacterial populations in animal and humans.”

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, antibiotic resistance was one of the biggest threats to public health because it can make conditions like pneumonia, sepsis, urinary tract and wound infections untreatable. Although the level of sharing from the households we have studied is low, healthy carriers can shed bacteria into their environment for months, and they can be a source of infection for other more vulnerable people and animals such as the elderly and pregnant women.”

“Our findings reinforce the need for people to practice good hygiene around their pets and to reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics in companion animals and people.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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