Dee: Both pigs and caregivers suffered in antibiotic-free study

A study looking at how PRRS-challenged pigs performed in antibiotic-free production systems needed to be stopped for welfare reasons so the pigs could be treated with antibiotics, according to Scott Dee, DVM, director of research, Pipestone Veterinary Services (PVS).
calendar icon 27 February 2018
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The study conducted at PVS facilities was designed to compare the performance of health-challenged pigs from birth to marketing in an antibiotic-free group with two groups that received both injectable and oral antibiotics as needed.

A small subset of pigs in each group was challenged with the PRRS virus, which often brings on secondary bacterial infections. As the virus worked its way through the population, all pigs were treated with antibiotics except for those in the antibiotic-free group.

“The animals in the antibiotic-free group were sick but could not be treated with antibiotics,” Dee lamented. “The pigs were really suffering. We were seeing high mortality levels; pigs were huddling and had a lot of weight loss.

“We had to stop the study and treat (antibiotic-free) pigs for welfare reasons,” he told Pig Health Today.

But the antibiotic-free pigs weren’t the only ones suffering, Dee reported at the 2017 Leman Swine Conference. The people taking care of them showed emotional distress, too.

“This was not only an animal issue but also a human issue,” he said.

The struggling pigs recovered once antibiotics were administered. “There was a turnaround in the mood of the staff, too,” he reported.

Antibiotics important tool
The PPRS virus poses a major threat to any swine herd, but it’s particularly costly when pigs are raised without antibiotics. The virus knocks out a pig’s immune system and “opens the door for secondary pathogens to cause problems,” Dee said.

“We recovered from these (antibiotic-free) pigs many, many diseases. The main message is that when pigs are sick [from bacterial infections], they need to be treated with antibiotics,” which he described as a valuable tool in the veterinarian’s toolbox.

“Use them when needed and justified with diagnostics. Then pull them out,” he said. “I don’t believe in the need to feed antibiotics continuously in the diet. That’s a practice of the past. We can use medication in the feed appropriately for a specific period of time.”

He supports FDA’s expanded use of the veterinary feed directive (VFD), which requires veterinarians to be involved with using any feed-grade antibiotics deemed by FDA to be medically important to humans.

“This has made us better stewards of microbial use,” he says, referring to the VFD. “You have to improve your management skills to correctly set up facilities and environment to help the welfare of the animals. It’s also allowed us to rely on veterinarian prescription use of injectable and water solubles so the veterinarian has more input into how medications are used.”

The aborted study changed Dee’s mind about another thing. “I will never eat or purchase meat that has a no-antibiotic-ever label,” he said. “What I saw happen to the animals in the antibiotic-free group is unethical. We need antibiotics. If we didn’t have that tool, the suffering in the animal world would be extremely high.”

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