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Veterinarian says both pigs, caregivers suffered in antibiotic-free study

A study looking at how pigs challenged with PRRS (porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome) performed in an antibiotic-free production setting 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).

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 during the trial, 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 the (antibiotic-free) pigs for welfare reasons,” he told Pig Health Today.

Hard on caregivers, too

The antibiotic-free pigs weren’t the only ones suffering, Dee reported. 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 people working with the pigs suffered emotional distress because they weren’t able to treat the animals [because of the trial design].”

The struggling pigs recovered once antibiotics were administered.

“The pigs recovered and the people involved with the trial were excited to be taking care of the pigs correctly,” he reported. “It was such a turnaround in the pig population as well as in the mood of the staff.”

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,” he added.

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 said, referring to the VFD. “You have to improve your management skills to correctly set up facilities and the environment to help the welfare of the animals. The VFDs have 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.”

Management benefits

Activist groups often are critical of contemporary indoor production, but being able to closely monitor pig health is just one of many benefits of indoor pig-raising, Dee pointed out.

For example, modern genetics with higher productivity targets are designed for indoor production. In addition, the ability to monitor pigs more closely ensures any potential issues will be identified right away.

“If pigs have the right amount of space, good ventilation, a clean place to live, a good source of fresh water and a properly designed nutrition program, those animals are comfortable,” Dee said. It all hinges on what’s best for the pig from a welfare standpoint, including responsible antibiotic use.

A changed perspective

The veterinarian said consumers need to think about the consequences of raising pigs with standards that don’t allow for responsible antibiotic usage. “If we didn’t have that tool, the suffering in the animal world would be extremely high,” Dee said.


For more on this study:

Scientific paper     Pork magazine


Posted on January 10, 2019

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A recent study shows it’s feasible to obtain data on antimicrobial use while keeping information confidential, said Peter Davies, PhD, principal investigator and professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota.

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