How are Antibiotics Used in Cattle? Are they Causing Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?

As a veterinarian, I see sick cattle and treat them with antibiotics and other medications on a regular basis. There have been questions if using antibiotics in farm animals leads to antibiotic resistance in humans. The risk that this will occur is minuscule, however, because my colleagues and I are on the front lines of this issue we take antibiotic resistance seriously. Our belief is the key to keeping antibiotics effective is to treat cattle early so they can make a quick recovery and avoid re-treatment.

To help you understand our day-to-day usage of antibiotics, I would like you to meet this calf. He doesn’t have a number to identify him, so we shall name him Frank. Frank was born this summer on lush green pasture and still resides with his mother on the same pasture. He has lived a charmed existence, playing with his friends, chasing after rabbits, and being adorable and stuff. Unfortunately, he just caught pneumonia. If left untreated, he will die.

Blaze Faced Calf Named Frank

Call me Frank. Frankly, I won’t live without an antibiotic!

You see, despite every effort to make his life as stress free as possible, Frank still got sick. Just like humans, cattle get sick. My treatment plan for Frank is an antibiotic, in this case tildipirosin and an anti-inflammatory drug for the fever, flunixin meglumine. Note that the antibiotic I chose is not used in humans, which is common among antibiotics used in cattle for pneumonia. Now that he has been treated, Frank will make a full recovery and once again frolic happily in the green pasture.

Sometimes it is not only single calves that get sick, but an entire group of calves. Just like a cold spreads through your office at work, disease can spread through a herd of cattle. Unfortunately, unlike our coworkers that loudly complain about their aliment, cattle make it their number one priority to hide any sign they are sick. Cattle are prey animals and any sign of weakness is an invitation to become lunch for a carnivore.

Because we cannot determine with 100% accuracy which animals are sick and which ones are not, using antibiotics for disease prevention is practiced when we recognize the start of an epidemic in a herd. For example, if out of fifty calves five get sick in two days, I will recommend treating the entire group. If animals are treated early, they respond better to the antibiotic and less have to be re-treated. This allows for the antibiotic to be more effective and less antibiotics to be used in total.

Spot the sick calf in this picture

Try to pick out which calf in this picture is sick. Also, try to find the seven ninjas that are in this photo. You will have about as much luck.

Sometimes antibiotics for disease prevention are administered in their feed. This is because it is less stressful to the animals to simply eat the antibiotic than to be taken to a handling area where they can be given an injection. This is NOT the same as using antibiotics for growth promotion. Cattlemen have voluntarily decided to not use antibiotics that are of critical importance to humans for growth promotion.

Because antibiotics are important to both human and animal health, we veterinarians take antibiotic resistance seriously. Although more than 70% of the antibiotics used in farm animals are rarely or never prescribed to humans, if there were to be a case of antibiotic resistance developing from animals the first people to be impacted would be us. Therefore we take great care to make sure antibiotics are used effectively and only as necessary.

Jake with thermometer

If anyone is going to be the first person to get antibiotic resistant bacteria from an animal, it’s going to be this guy. That’s why he makes sure he uses them right.

There are a lot more questions people ask me about this topic. Because of this, I put together a series of short videos that I hope will address the most common ones. Feel free to check out the links below to youtube videos for each question.


Why are Antibiotics Used in Raising Beef Cattle?

How are Antibiotics Used in Livestock?

Does the Use of Antibiotics in Cattle Lead to Resistance in Humans?


3 responses to “How are Antibiotics Used in Cattle? Are they Causing Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria?

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