Adorable as they are, puppies aren’t the cleanest pets. They roll around in dirt; they stick their noses in trash; sometimes, they even eat their own poop. As such, pups are exposed to lots of bacteria, and those can be passed on to the humans that hang out with them. Occasionally, the bacteria makes the humans sick. It’s a risk we take.
The CDC reports that between January 2016 through February 2018, 118 Americans across 18 states were sickened with an antibiotic-resistant strain of the bacteria Campylobacter jejuni, which causes diarrhea, fever, and painful abdominal cramps. Of the sick, 105 had been in contact with puppies, and 101 of them had specified contact with pet store puppies. In fact, 29 of the people who got sick were pet store employees.
As the CDC investigation showed, puppies — specifically, their poop — indeed transmitted the antibiotic-resistant Campylobacter infection. But the reason they were carrying such a virulent strain of the bacteria in the first place is that 95 percent of the puppies had been given a round of antibiotics while they were in the pet store — even though they had no infections.
This strategy, known as prophylaxis, is meant to prevent animals from getting infected, especially when they live in particularly dirty, bacteria-filled environments (like tightly packed pet kennels or poorly maintained farms), but it can backfire in the form of antibiotic resistance. Sure enough, all of the outbreak strains uncovered by the CDC were resistant to the antibiotics used to commonly treat Campylobacter infection.
“Consumers, employees, and clinicians should be aware of the risk for disease transmission from puppies, including the possibility of exposure to multidrug-resistant pathogens,” the CDC writes. “Greater adherence to implementation of antibiotic stewardship practices in the commercial dog industry might be needed.”
Antibiotic resistance is an increasingly serious issue even outside of the pet store. Worldwide, the misuse and overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of bacterial strains that don’t respond to treatment. Though it’s normal for bacteria to eventually evolve resistance to a certain drug, the World Health Organization has warned that our liberal use of antibiotics is speeding up the rate that resistance is emerging. And scientists can’t develop new drugs quickly enough to keep up with that pace.
While it won’t hurt to be a little more diligent about hand-washing and waste disposal when it comes to puppies, that’s not the real issue here. Puppies, as the CDC report shows, are “uncommonly reported to cause outbreaks” of Campylobacter. When it comes to the spread of nasty bacteria, as the case of the pet store pups demonstrated, we only have ourselves to blame for our sub-par cleanliness and overzealous use of antibiotics.