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News & Events
MU Veterinary Researchers Seek Help In Determining
If Our Pets Carry an Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria


The so-called "super bug" bacteria, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is a growing problem in the medical profession where common contact can spread the antibiotic-resistant infection from doctor to patient.

But are our dogs and cats also capable of carrying and spreading this bacteria? To find out, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine are recruiting 750 pet owners to determine if the bacteria routinely exists on our pets.

The bacteria, MRSA, has become prominent in the news because it is resistant to many antibiotics, and has been linked to skin infections, abscesses, joint infections, and death. It is dangerous because common antibiotics like oxacillin, penicillin, and amoxicillin don't work against it. This forces physicians to use stronger, more expensive, or second- or third-choice medicines that may be less effective or have more side effects.

MRSA bacteria often lives on the skin of healthy people causing little more than an occasional boil or pimple or no symptoms at all. It becomes dangerous when the bacteria enters the body via a cut or puncture where it can produce a serious infection that does not readily respond to antibiotics.

It is particularly dangerous in healthcare settings where patients usually have weakened immune systems. Surgical procedures, dialysis treatment, or common tests that puncture the skin can introduce MRSA bacteria into the body where it can cause life-threatening problems, such as bloodstream infections, surgical site infections, or pneumonia.

While MRSA transmissions are known to occur in prison populations, sports teams, and the military, they seem to be most prevalent in healthcare areas. According to Center for Disease Control data, the proportion of infections that are antimicrobial resistant has been growing. In 1974, MRSA infections accounted for two percent of the total number of staphylococcal infections; in 1995 it was 22 percent; in 2004 it was some 63 percent.

Staphylococcal bacteria are commonly found on human skin and in the nasal passages, but less so in animals. Nonetheless, last year the federal Centers for Disease Control started looking to determine if dogs and cats are a potential carrier of MRSA bacteria and if there is a disease-transfer connection. Specifically, scientists wonder if humans are giving the bacteria to pets, pets are giving it to humans, or if the staphylococcal bacteria is cycling constantly among humans and their pets.

Early data indicates that there is a growing problem in the veterinary world. Veterinarians have reported cases of MRSA infection among dogs who have had surgery such as limb amputation. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcal infections have been found among horses, and outbreaks have occurred in equine hospitals.

Like with people, bacteria on pets may have grown resistant to antibiotics as modern veterinary medicine routinely uses modern pharmaceuticals to save animals who would have died a quarter century ago.

MU's research study is being headed by Stephanie Kottler, DVM, a resident veterinarian at the Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Co-investigators are Leah Cohn DVM, PhD, associate professor in small animal internal medicine; John Middleton, DVM, PhD, assistant professor of food animal internal medicine; and J. Scott Weese, DVM, DVSc, assistant professor at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College, Canada.

Because prior studies have shown that there is a higher prevalence of MRSA bacteria colonization among healthcare workers, the MU study will evaluate 750 pets and their owners divided evenly into three groups 1) pets of human healthcare workers, 2) pets of veterinary healthcare workers, and 3) pets belonging to non-healthcare professionals.

"Results of the study will help define whether pets in households with healthcare workers are a more likely to serve as reservoirs for community-acquired MRSA," Dr. Kottler said.

The study is being funded by the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Foundation, the MU Department of Veterinary Medicine and Surgery, and Drs. Middleton and Cohn. Results will be submitted to human and veterinary peer-reviewed scientific journals.

The research study will only take a few minutes of time for participants to complete. A questionnaire is filled out, and then a technician will use a cotton swab to touch the inside of the pet's nose, and another swab to touch the inside of the pet owner's nose. The samples will be cultured to determine what kind of bacteria are present. Results will remain anonymous.

A coupon for dog food or a pet-related gift will be given to each participant.

For more information about the study, contact Dr. Kottler via e-mail at: kottlers@missouri.edu.

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Last Update: February 24, 2012