A lack of surveillance and uncontrolled use of antibiotics in pets across Canada could be adding to the growing problem of superbugs, experts say.

Antibiotic medicines, such as erythromycin and tetracycline (the same ones used in people), are readily available in pet shops. No questions asked or prescription required. People, on the other hand, have to see their doctors to get a prescription for such medication.

Dr. Scott Weese, an infectious disease specialist at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, said that "just completely makes no sense."

"If we need to use an antibiotic, we need to use it right — which means getting the right diagnosis," he said.

'It would have a profound impact on veterinary medicine and probably human medicine as well to understand these issues better.' - Dr. Scott Weese, Ontario Veterinary College

"We need to use the right drug, right duration. All of these things can go wrong if people access the drugs in a wrong way," said Weese, who's also the lead author on a new consensus statement calling for greater stewardship of antibiotic use on domestic animals, which was presented at a veterinary conference last year.

It's not uncommon for pet owners to purchase antibiotics on store shelves. 

"They're extremely popular," said Graham Robinson, a sales clerk at Menagerie Pet Shop in Toronto. "We probably sell out of certainly erythromycin weekly — about five, six packets."

Superbugs threaten public health

Weese said there are many reasons why the simple act of buying an antibiotic from a pet store "might come back to haunt you in the future."


Microbiology, molecular biology and genetic research such as the Human Genome Project utilize antibiotics in experiments, but a scientists is warning against overuse. (CBC)

"It might be cheaper, but it might cost you more in the long run if you don't treat it right — if the dog gets another problem or needs a different antibiotic, or gets sicker, or dies because of inappropriate treatment. Or it might be that it builds up a resistance bacterium, then it gets an infection later that's harder to treat or passes it to you and you get the disease," said Weese.

The liberal use of antibiotics that are normally reserved for serious infections could lead to the creation of superbugs, which are resistant to certain antibiotics. Superbugs are a threat to both people and pets.

Antibiotic resistance, according to the World Health Organization, is "an increasingly serious threat to global public health" and puts the ability to treat common infections at risk.

"Without urgent, co-ordinated action, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries, which have been treatable for decades, can once again kill," the WHO says on its website.

In 2013, the Ontario Medical Association called on the provincial and federal governments to enact regulatory changes to reduce the growth of antibiotic resistant bacteria, including making sure access to antibiotics for animals is available only through a prescription from a vet.

Antibiotic use and common sense

Health Canada quietly made moves to end the use of antibiotics to fatten up livestock last year, but the lax regulation on antibiotic use for disease prevention remains — not to mention the black hole on available data.

"One of the big problems we have is not knowing antibiotic use, antibiotic resistance, disease patterns, and it's something we certainly need," said Weese.

"It's well developed in some areas, but when it comes to companion animals — the animals we have the most contact — we have very little."

Weese said to have more surveillance, "even if it's just knowing how much antibiotic use is in animals, how it is being used and, more broadly, what diseases animals are getting that may be passed to people."

"It would have a profound impact on veterinary medicine and probably human medicine as well to understand these issues better," he said.

Weese recommends people use common sense, using antibiotics only when they're needed. 

"Try to figure out how to use them appropriately, try to minimize the risk of developing resistance in the animal or in the human at the same time."

With files from CBC's Kelly Crowe and Diane Paquette