Pets May Be Passing Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, Harmful Genes to Their Owners

Lisbon Portugal – Do you have a pet that doesn’t mind letting your furry friend lick your face? A new study finds that you may want to think twice about it from now on. An international team has found that dogs and cats may be transmitting antibiotic-resistant bacteria to their owners.

The team from Portugal and the UK add that pets may also be passing genes that play a crucial role in bacterial resistance to their human friends.

“Our findings verify not only the exchange of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, but also of resistance genes between companion animals and their owners in the community, underscoring the need for ongoing local surveillance programs to identify potential risk to human health”, says Dr. Juliana Menezes. from the University of Lisbon in a Press release.

What hides in the intestine of a pet?

Scientists continue to express concern about the role animals play as “potential reservoirs of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.” The researchers note that E. coli bacteria are common in the intestines of humans and their pets. Although many strains are harmless, some can cause food poisoning and life-threatening infections.

Previous studies have warned of the growing threat of infections that are now highly resistant to antibiotics. These include strains with ESBL- and AmpC-producing Enterobacteriaceae (AmpC-E) and carbapenemase-producing Enterobacterales (CPE), all of which are resistant to penicillin and cephalosporins.

In the new study, the researchers wanted to find out if there is any evidence that harmful bacteria strains are moving from one species to another, specifically, from our cats and dogs to people.

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Pets and pet owners share the same germs

The study authors evaluated the bacterial composition of both pets and their owners who visited veterinary hospitals in Portugal and the United Kingdom between 2018 and 2020. The team notes that the study only examined people and pets without bacterial infections or a history of having taken antibiotics during the previous three months.

They collected stool samples from 58 healthy people, 40 dogs and 18 cats in Portugal to examine the bacteria in their systems. The researchers also collected samples from a further 56 people and 45 dogs who lived in 42 households across the UK over a four-month period.

Overall, the researchers found that 15 of 103 pets and 15 of 114 pet owners carried ESBL/AmpC-producing bacteria. Of this group, six of the 15 cats and dogs and four people had at least one multidrug-resistant strain of bacteria in their gut.

In four Portuguese households, the team also found the same pet ESBL/pAMPc resistance genes in their owners. In one of these houses, the researchers found multiple instances of bacterial strains shared between pets and humans over the four-month period. In addition, the team discovered matching E. coli strains among pets and their owners’ stool samples in two homes.

“Sometimes the bacteria may not share each other, but their resistance genes do,” explains Dr. Menezes. “These genes are located on mobile fragments of DNA, which means they can be transferred between different bacterial populations in animals and humans.”

‘The biggest threats to public health’

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, antibiotic resistance was one of the biggest public health threats because it can make conditions like pneumonia, sepsis, urinary tract infections and wounds untreatable. Although the level of sharing of households that we have studied is low, healthy carriers can shed bacteria in their environment for months and can be a source of infection for other more vulnerable people and animals, such as the elderly and pregnant women. Our findings reinforce the need for people to practice good hygiene around their pets and reduce the use of unnecessary antibiotics in companion animals and people,” continues Dr. Menezes.

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The team notes that their study is observational only and cannot definitively prove that harmful bacteria are transmitted between pets and pet owners. Aside from pets, previous studies show that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are also a major concern in hospitals, gyms, and even washing machines.

The researchers are presenting their findings at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases 2022 (ECCMID).