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Antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs' are being passed from pets to humans

You might think of hospitals and healthcare settings when it comes to antibiotic resistant bacteria, but a new study reveals that this problem could be lurking right in your living room…inside your beloved pet.

Antibiotics have changed our world, saving countless lives from deadly infections. But lurking in the background is an invisible threat: antibiotic resistance.

This happens when bacteria develop ways to survive the very drugs designed to kill them. These “superbugs” become much harder to treat, and they’re becoming scarily common.

Bacteria spread between pets and owners

Researchers in Portugal and the UK have presented a study with unsettling implications: our pets might be contributing to the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

The study, unveiled at the ESCMID Global Congress, discovered instances where sick dogs and cats infected with drug-resistant bacteria transmitted those same bacteria to their healthy owners.

This finding brings a new dimension to the already grave problem of antibiotic resistance. The World Health Organization emphasizes the urgency of this global threat, projecting that if we fail to take significant action, drug-resistant infections will claim a staggering 10 million lives annually by 2050.

Pets, bacteria and superbugs

When bacteria are repeatedly exposed to antibiotics, they can evolve ways to survive the very drugs intended to eliminate them. This creates “superbugs” that are incredibly difficult to treat with existing medications,

When drug-resistant infections spread, treatment options become extremely limited. Illnesses that were once easily managed can lead to serious health problems, prolonged hospital stays, and even death.

This study highlights the potential for our pets to act as reservoirs for antibiotic-resistant bacteria, inadvertently transmitting them to their owners – even those who are healthy.

Bacteria in pets

The study focused on a group of bacteria called Enterobacterales, a family that includes well-known bacteria like E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae. These bacteria, while often harmless, have the potential to cause a range of infections.

Researchers were particularly concerned with antibiotic-resistant strains of Enterobacterales. Specifically, they focused on strains resistant to these two critical types of antibiotics:

  • Third-generation cephalosporins: These versatile antibiotics are used to combat serious infections like meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord membranes), pneumonia (lung infection), and sepsis (life-threatening blood infection). Resistance to this group of antibiotics poses a significant threat to successful treatment.
  • Carbapenems: These powerful drugs are considered a “last resort” antibiotic. Doctors reserve them for situations where other antibiotics have failed, or when they suspect a highly resistant infection. Resistance to carbapenems severely limits treatment options, leading to potentially dire outcomes for patients.

The study’s most concerning finding was that antibiotic-resistant forms of Enterobacterales were present in both sick pets and their healthy owners. This discovery suggests that even healthy animals may carry and potentially spread bacteria that are highly challenging to treat.

The stats


  • 55.8% of pets and 35.9% of their owners carried bacteria resistant to third-generation cephalosporins.
  • One dog carried a strain of E. coli resistant to carbapenem antibiotics.
  • Five households showed clear evidence of bacteria transmission between a pet and owner.


  • 36.4% of pets and 12.5% of owners carried bacteria resistant to third-generation cephalosporins.
  • One dog had E. coli with resistance to carbapenems and many other antibiotics.
  • Two households showed matching resistant bacteria in pets and owners.

Should pet owners be worried?

While the study’s findings are concerning, it’s important not to panic. Lead researcher Juliana Menezes emphasizes, “Our findings underline the importance of including pet-owning households in national programmes that monitor levels of antibiotic resistance.”

We need more research to fully grasp the scope of this problem, but it serves as a wake-up call to take this issue seriously.

How do bacteria spread from pets to humans?

Our everyday interactions with our beloved pets provide numerous ways for bacteria to spread. Here’s why:

  • Close contact: Petting, cuddling, and even giving your furry friend a kiss create opportunities for bacteria to transfer from their fur or saliva to your skin.
  • Handling waste: Cleaning up after your pet, whether it’s scooping a litter box or picking up dog poop, puts you in direct contact with their waste, which can harbor bacteria.
  • Shared surfaces: If your pet frequently climbs on furniture or even sleeps in your bed, any bacteria they carry can easily be transferred to these surfaces, potentially exposing you later.

It’s important to remember that even healthy pets can carry bacteria, some of which may be resistant to antibiotics. While the risk of getting sick from your pet is generally low, simple hygiene practices can minimize the chances of transmission.

Tips to protect yourself and your pet

Don’t panic. These findings emphasize responsible pet ownership, not fear. You can enjoy a close and loving relationship with your pet while taking steps to protect yourself and others:

Practice good hygiene

  • Thorough handwashing: Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after petting your animal, playing with them, or cleaning their living area. This is especially crucial before eating or touching your face.
  • Cleaning pet areas: Regularly clean and disinfect surfaces your pet frequents, like food bowls, toys, and sleeping areas.

Consider isolation when your pet is sick

  • Limiting spread: If your pet shows signs of illness, keeping them confined to a specific area of your home can help prevent bacteria from spreading throughout the house.
  • Careful cleaning: Thoroughly clean and disinfect any areas where your sick pet has been, paying special attention to where they may have had accidents.

Talk to your vet

  • Discuss concerns: If you’re worried about antibiotic resistance or your pet’s health, don’t hesitate to bring it up with your veterinarian.
  • Responsible antibiotic use: Vets play a vital role in ensuring antibiotics are prescribed only when necessary and used according to guidelines. Open communication helps them make informed decisions about your pet’s care.

By following these simple practices, you can help minimize the risk of transmitting antibiotic-resistant bacteria while maintaining a strong and healthy bond with your furry companion.

Fighting antibiotic resistance together

“Understanding and addressing the transmission of AMR bacteria from pets to humans is essential for effectively combating antimicrobial resistance in both human and animal populations,” says Juliana Menezes.

The fight against antibiotic resistance requires a ‘One Health’ approach – recognizing that human, animal, and environmental health are all interlinked. By taking sensible precautions and being mindful of hygiene, we can enjoy a safe and healthy life with our beloved furry companions for years to come.


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