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Antibiotic Resistance in Wildlife

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We are all aware of the phenomenon of antibiotic resistance that is a concern to humans and domestic animals, but who would have thought this could be prevalent in wild animals as well? It turns out that a wildlife biologist, Jurgi Cristobal-Azkarate, has looked at the feces of howler monkeys near Veracruz in the Mexican jungle and found superbugs with antibiotic resistance. Even more alarming is that an abundance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria were found also in spider monkeys, tapirs, jaguars, a puma, a dwarf leopard, and jaguarundis. Many of these animals live far from humans, which makes this finding even more puzzling.

The presence of superbugs in wildlife is not new--there have been reports of it occurring in rodents in the UK and iguanas in the Galapagos. The Mexican report makes a couple of interesting points: “Most antibiotics come from bacteria and fungi, to which bacteria have been exposed for millions of years. But in Cristóbal-Azkarate’s study, some isolated bacteria were even resistant to relatively new, synthetic antibiotics such as fluoroquinolones, suggesting that resistance had spread from human-populated areas.”

There is no clear information on how these antibiotic-resistant bacteria made their way into wildlife a distance from human populations. The study noted, “Terrestrial species were more exposed to antibiotics from human origin, and/or bacteria from humans and livestock than the arboreal (monkey) species.” In addition, it is speculated that wildlife comes into contact with human or domestic animal waste as wild animals hunt and forage in areas with some human influence or there is contact with waste that is carried by water, by migratory birds or bats.

The implications are concerning as it is possible that these superbugs could further mutate with even greater resistance to currently available pharmaceuticals, and this could be challenging or even impossible to treat if these microbes find their way back into the human and/or domestic animal populations.

Equine practitioners are keenly aware of the dangers of over-judicious use of antibiotics. With this latest discovery, it causes veterinarians to be even more circumspect about when and how to use our drug armamentarium.

J. Cristóbal-Azkarate et al., “Resistance to antibiotics of clinical relevance in the fecal microbiota of Mexican wildlife,” PLOS ONE, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0107719, 2014.