Antibiotics are any of a large group of chemical substances, such as penicillin or streptomycin, produced by various microorganisms and fungi, having the capacity in dilute solutions to inhibit the growth of or to destroy bacteria and other microorganisms, used chiefly in the treatment of infectious diseases among livestock.
Antibiotics have been around for a very long time and have helped prevent and control a lot of diseases in humans and farm animals alike. The usage of antibiotics in farm animals is quite heavy and widespread, and has been a typical practice of farmers in North America and Europe for quite some time. For example, in the U.S alone, more than eight billion chickens are processed each year and most beef, pork, poultry consumed by humans contains small amounts of antibiotics
There are four broad categories of animal antibiotics use:
1. Treatment of disease
Antibiotics are given to treat an animal with a diagnosed illness. As part of the effort to produce poultry meat and eggs as economically as possible, it is common practice to maintain broilers, turkeys, and laying hens in large flocks in one location. From 10,000 to 20,000 broilers are typically raised in one house, and some operations have as many as a million laying hens in one location. With such a concentration of birds it is essential to have disease control programs that will prevent disastrous losses to the poultry industry. Drugs, including antibiotics, have played a major role in maintaining the health of poultry flocks since the 1950’s.
Because all uses of antimicrobial drugs, in both humans and animals, contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance, it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary.
2. Containment of disease outbreak
Antibiotics can be given to control the spread of an illness on a farm or ranch in the face of an outbreak. Livestock and poultry farmers aim to raise all animals in conditions that promote their health, from fresh water and nutritious feed to clean living conditions. While some products, like organic products and those that make a ‘no antibiotics’ claim, may create the impression that animal antibiotics were not needed, the fact is, animals in all production systems become sick at some time, just like all people do.
3. Prevention of disease transmission
Because livestock and poultry share water and feed troughs and seek close contact with one another by licking, laying on each other and even rubbing snouts and noses, illnesses can spread rapidly. Sometimes, veterinarians recommend using antibiotics to prevent diseases at times when livestock are particularly at risk, like during weaning from the mother. Swift, preventive actions often mean a livestock will receive fewer antibiotics than they would have if they had not received a preventive dose.
4. Promotion of growth
Livestock producers routinely give antibiotics to animals to make them grow faster or help them survive crowded, stressful, and unsanitary conditions.
The use of some antibiotics can destroy certain bacteria in the gut and help livestock and poultry convert feed to muscle more quickly causing more rapid growth.
Antibiotics are added to the animal feed or drinking water of cattle, hogs, poultry and other food-producing animals to help them gain weight faster or use less food to gain weight.
Like people, animals become ill and can develop conditions similar to common human infections like pneumonia, skin infections and others. Most pet owners have experienced the need to give their cats and dogs antibiotics to treat infections. Livestock and poultry are no different. Not providing animal antibiotics when needed would harm a sick animal’s well-being and could cause a more widespread infection in other animals in a home, herd or flock.
The management procedures used in today’s poultry production have made it possible to provide poultry meat and eggs for consumers very economically. In fact, until very recently the prices of broilers and eggs were similar to those 25 years ago despite a decrease in the value of the dollar through inflation. It is unlikely that future changes in management will result in any reduction in the concentration of poultry. Changes will probably involve upgrading of physical facilities for maintaining the birds, including environmentally controlled housing and the adoption of more automated equipment in the feeding and management of the birds.
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