Superbugs: Preventing and treating MSRA and other infections in our pets

Bacterial-skin infections … resistant bugs … MRSA … The issue of superbugs has been brought to public attention in the last few years due to the increased incidence of these infections in humans. But it may not be public knowledge that these infections can affect pets as well.

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is a type of bacteria that is found as a normal component of the bacterial population that resides on the skin of humans and animals. Methicillin-resistant S. aureus is a strain of the bacteria that has developed resistance to a type of antibiotic called Methicillin. Bacteria that are resistant to Methicillin are often resistant to multiple other antibiotics as well. Treatment of these infections can be extremely difficult and is becoming an urgent problem in both human and veterinary medicine.

MRSA infection is typically caused by direct physical contact with an infected person or animal. However, it can also be spread by coming into contact with a contaminated object or fomite, such as bedding, towels, clothing, etc. It was originally thought that infection could only be transmitted from human to animal, but evidence suggests that infection can be spread in the opposite direction as well.

MRSA infections typically involve the skin, and most commonly occur at surgical sites or wounds in the skin. However, they can also occur in the respiratory tract and present as nasal or lung infections, including pneumonia.

If a MRSA infection is diagnosed in a pet, it is important to take steps to avoid transmission to human companions. In addition, if a human is diagnosed with a MRSA infection, any pets in the house should be evaluated for skin lesions, and their veterinarian should be notified. Humans and animals with a compromised immune system, or who have been hospitalized for surgery, are more susceptible.

So when should you be concerned?

If your pet has been treated for a skin infection that doesn’t seem to go away, or if it goes away and comes back again … and again … and again … you should be concerned about the presence of a superbug. A bacterial culture of your pet’s skin will likely be recommended by your vet if he or she has an infection that he just can’t kick. The same goes for wounds. If your pet has a wound that seems like it just won’t heal, he or she should be seen. A culture would likely be recommended.

In humans, the effects of an infection with MRSA can range from minor skin irritations to severe wound infections, pneumonia and even meningitis. If you are unsure about any of your own symptoms, or if you have even a mild skin irritation and your pet has been diagnosed with MRSA, you should consult your physician. However, keep in mind that not everyone who is exposed to MRSA will develop symptoms. Most will clear the organism without treatment or become colonized without developing any symptoms.

What can you do to prevent the spread of infection?

If you or your pet is diagnosed with MRSA or another highly resistant bacterial infection, you can decrease the possibility of spreading that infection through steps such as:

• Frequent hand washing. This, as a general rule, is a good habit to help decrease the spread of multiple types of infection among humans, including MRSA. Thorough hand washing after contact with an infected dog or cat can help decrease the risk of spreading the bacteria to humans, and decrease environmental contamination as well.

• If a pet has been diagnosed with a MRSA infection, it is important to avoid contacting the infected site. If a topical medication is required, it is important to wear gloves when administering the medication, and to wash hands when finished. The site can also be covered with a sterile dressing, if recommended by the doctor, during the healing process. If the site of infection is the nasal cavity or respiratory tract, avoid contacting the nose and nasal secretions.

Frequent washing of bedding. Wash the pet’s bedding and fabric toys frequently in hot water to keep environmental contamination to a minimum.

In the case of a MRSA infection, extended courses of antibiotics will likely be recommended, as well as follow-up bacterial cultures. It is imperative to complete medication courses as directed, and adhere to the doctor’s recommendations for follow-up testing. Incomplete resolution of infection and noncompliance with treatment are some of the reasons we have these “superbugs” in the first place.

Our world is constantly changing. We should remain vigilant and educated about our environment and the organisms within it. As always, if you have any concerns about your pets’ health, contact your veterinarian, and don’t forget about your own health; if you have concerns, contact your physician. That’s what we are here for! 

Nicholle Hommel, VMD, is an associate veterinarian at Society Hill Veterinary Hospital. For more information, visit or call 215-627-5955.


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