It’s easy to forget that antibiotics have been formally in use for less than a hundred years. I mean, what did we ever do without these bacteria-killing drugs? 

I prescribe antibiotics every day of my life in veterinary practice. Which means I revere them for their effectiveness and rely on their actions. Indeed, I treat them like gold. (Gram per gram, some of them probably cost as much.) 

But that reverence also means I look hard for ways to do without. After all, antibiotics have been courting bacterial resistance since the first day they came on the scene. Every time I use them I understand that some percentage of wily bacteria may well find ways to thwart their killing power with genetic somersaults worthy of a Greg Louganis dive. 

Add up all the molecular gymnastics and it’s postulated that, one day soon, these drugs will no longer work their 20th century magic. Blip. Gone. What next? 

So what’s a vet to do? 

In food supply veterinary medicine, the stress is more acute. That’s because modern industrial agriculture practices rely on these drugs to get animals up to size with a speed unheard of even fifty years ago. And though the residual drugs in our animal proteins may not affect humans (at least that’s what the Industry says), their widespread use doubtless advances the day these drugs will no longer do their intended thing. 

That’s why I predict that the political forces mounting against the use of antibiotics in food animal species will one day spill over to the small animal side of the veterinary coin. Backlash against antibiotic use for non-human species will mean new regulations against their use in pets––probably within the next twenty years, if not sooner.

So I’m getting ready, anticipating the changes with antibiotic alternatives and doing my best not to contribute to the problem by limiting antibiotic consumption in my patients wherever I can. 

But it isn’t always so doable in practice. Pet owners want fast, easy results. And alternative approaches don’t always do the trick with the alacrity of a simple pill or the jab of a needle. Nonetheless, there is a contingent of pet owners ready and willing to try my way first. And that’s all I ask. If it doesn’t work––no matter––we can always move along to the bigger guns. 

After all, these are not the deathly ill animals with fulminating infections and fantastic fevers we’re talking about, rather the ones with simple everyday infections for whom a soaked paw or a flushed ear may mean one less course of an expensive and potentially resistance-incurring antibiotic. Consider these ideas, if you will:

1. Treat locally whenever possible

I’m not saying you do without, I’m just suggesting you keep the antibiotic confined to one organ system or area. Medicated shampoos, topical creams and lotions, medicated flushes, ear and eye drops, etc. 

2. Use antibiotic alternatives

Disinfectants, Epsom salts, honey and other alternatives (modern and ancient, alike) may be indicated for plenty of superficial infections. Even some deep puncture wounds, when treated early and often with Epsom salt soaks, can get away with zero antibiotics. Just don’t try this at home without your veterinarian’s look-see. 

3. Try probiotics

They’re getting more popular every day. Instead of treating a gastrointestinal bacterial overgrowth with antibiotics (as we’re so often wont to do), try the probiotic approach. These healthy bacterial cultures can reestablish the balance between “good” and “bad” bacteria in the GI tract. Why kill when promotion works just as well? 

4. Treat the source

Skin infections secondary to allergies are among the most common reasons veterinarians prescribe antibiotics. With good reason. But treating the cause of the infection, though it’s a more complex undertaking, is probably the only thing that’ll keep one more pet off the lifelong rollercoaster ride of rotating antibiotics. 

5. Prevention

Preventing problems. It sounds so simple in theory. Yet it’s not a more popular approach because hard work is not a sexy antidote to a simple pill. Getting your hands dirty and spending your free time brushing teeth or cleaning ears is not an attractive option for many. It works, nonetheless.

***

Want to offer your own additions to my list? Go ahead...