Pets in the UK have been found to be harbouring a gene that enables bacteria to become resistant to a last-ditch antibiotic.
Linezolid is used to relieve the notorious superbug MRSA and treat streptococci, which can lead to pneumonia and sepsis.
Now, three cats and a dog have been found to carry bacteria ‘armed’ with a gene that can drive resistance to the antibiotic, which isn’t licensed for veterinary use in the UK.
Public Health England fears the ‘resistant gene’ – known as optrA – could spread between bacteria found in animals and their owners.
The nation’s pets may be fueling the antibiotic resistance crisis, research suggests (stock)
‘We believe this is the first report of optrA-positive enterococci isolated from companion animals in the UK,’ study author Dr Katie Hopkins said.
‘This is concerning as transmission of this organism to owners carries the potential for spread to other bacteria, including Staphylococcus aureus.’
Staphylococcus aureus lives harmlessly on many people’s skin but can cause blood poisoning or toxic shock syndrome if it enters the body via a cut.
Dr Hopkins is a clinical scientist in the Antimicrobial Resistance and Healthcare Associated Infections Reference Unit.
She added: ‘In order to minimise transmission of resistant bacteria between companion animals and people, veterinary surgeries need to ensure adequate cleaning takes place and pet owners should wash their hands after handling pets.’
The ‘first-time case’ came about during routine antibiotic resistance testing of a cat’s wound.
A swab was found to contain Enterococcus faecalis, a bacteria which causes urinary tract infections and has demonstrated antibiotic resistance.
The swab was referred by a veterinary diagnostic laboratory to PHE.
Three further E. faecalis swabs from two other cats and one dog from the same vet, but different homes, were also analysed.
Four E. faecalis samples from three swabs – along with a cat rectal swab – were confirmed to be resistant to linezolid.
Worryingly, all four samples were also positive for optrA, also involved in resistance to florfenicol – which is used in animals.
WHAT IS ANTIBIOTIC RESISTANCE?
Antibiotics have been doled out unnecessarily by GPs and hospital staff for decades, fueling once harmless bacteria to become superbugs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has previously warned if nothing is done the world is heading for a ‘post-antibiotic’ era.
It claimed common infections, such as chlamydia, will become killers without immediate solutions to the growing crisis.
Bacteria can become drug resistant when people take incorrect doses of antibiotics or if they are given out unnecessarily.
Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies claimed in 2016 that the threat of antibiotic resistance is as severe as terrorism.
Figures estimate that superbugs will kill 10 million people each year by 2050, with patients succumbing to once harmless bugs.
Around 700,000 people already die yearly due to drug-resistant infections including tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria across the world.
Concerns have repeatedly been raised that medicine will be taken back to the ‘dark ages’ if antibiotics are rendered ineffective in the coming years.
In addition to existing drugs becoming less effective, there have only been one or two new antibiotics developed in the last 30 years.
In September, the WHO warned antibiotics are ‘running out’ as a report found a ‘serious lack’ of new drugs in the development pipeline.
Without antibiotics, C-sections, cancer treatments and hip replacements will become incredibly ‘risky’, it was said at the time.
The bacterial samples also did not respond to the antibiotic gentamicin, which frequently treats infections of the heart, central nervous system and eye.
However, the bacteria were susceptible to the antibiotics teicoplanin, vancomycin, and daptomycin.
Linezolid resistance is considered rare and is usually related to mutations of the genes on chromosomes.
This makes the resistance incapable of spreading to other bacteria.
However, genes that code for linezolid resistance – such as optrA – are increasingly being seen on ‘mobile bits of DNA caused plasmids’, which can spread.
Florfenicol is indicated for the treatment of bovine respiratory disease, which can be brought on by bacteria and cause deadly pneumonia.
Dr Hopkins added the findings show antibiotic-resistance can be shared by animals and humans, although the direction of transfer is ‘often difficult to prove’.
She said further transmission was ‘stopped by cleaning and decontamination and we have no evidence that any people acquired an infection from these animals’.
Dr Hopkins said: ‘Transmission of this organism to owners carries the potential for plasmid-mediated spread to other bacteria, particularly in healthcare environments.’
She warned the findings, to be presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases meeting in Amsterdam, are is of public health importance.’
Since pets live in such close proximity to their owners, they are more likely to transfer resistant bacteria to humans than farm animals.
This transfer mainly occurs through saliva or skin-to-skin contact.
There is growing concern pets risk becoming reservoirs of resistant microbes that then spill over into their owners with disastrous effects.
Research has suggested pets can harbour MRSA, which then gets passed between other animals and humans.
Cats and dogs have the same strain of the bacteria as people, scientists at Cambridge University have found.
MRSA may spread between animals at veterinary clinics in a similar way to hospital infections, they said.
Figures suggest about one in 100 cats and two-to-nine per cent of dogs in the UK are carriers of MRSA. It has also been found in horses.