Equine Veterinarians Most Likely to Contract MRSA

Equine Veterinarians Most Likely to Contract MRSA

The results of a recent study indicate that equine veterinarians are up to 23 times more likely to contract MRSA than other types of veterinarians and the general public, including horse owners.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

In an industry that primarily focuses on sick and injured horses, some people might not realize how easy it is for equine veterinarians to become sick or injured themselves as a result of their work. Case in point: The results from a recent Australian study indicate that equine veterinarians in that country are up to 23 times more likely to contract antibiotic-resistant bacteria than the general public, including horse owners.

A research team from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (DPI) obtained nasal swabs from more than 750 veterinarians while attending industry conferences. They then sent the swabs to a laboratory to test for the presence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

"Vets who did not do any clinical work (likely have) about the same rate of MRSA colonization as the general community," said David Jordan, BVSc, MVS, PhD, principal research scientist at the DPI, adding that these veterinarians were used as controls and had a prevalence of about 0.9%.

They found that veterinarians that worked mostly with horses were more likely to be colonized (or a carrier of the bacteria) with the MRSA bacteria compared with other veterinarians.

"Veterinarians with horses as a major area of work emphasis had a prevalence of 11.8% (13-fold that of controls), and those whose only major emphasis was horses had a prevalence of 21.4% (23-fold that of controls)," the study noted.

Small animal veterinarians also were colonized with MRSA (about a 4.9% prevalence), but not as much so as equine veterinarians.

Jordan said it's not immediately clear why equine veterinarians carried more MRSA than other veterinarians.

"Perhaps vets working mostly with horses are exposed to a greater volume of material that could contain MRSA," he suggested. "Or perhaps MRSA infections are more common in horses than in other domestic animals."

He added that horse owners, however, shouldn't worry too much about getting MRSA from their horses

"Owners spend most of their time working with healthy horses while vets spend most of their time working with sick horses," Jordan explained.

However, everyone working with horses should practice good hygiene to try to avoid the spread of disease and bacteria. Frequent hand washing when working around horses can prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases, and wearing protective clothing, gloves, and a facemask, if necessary, when attending to a sick horse can help keep owners and veterinarians safe from illness, he advised.

Finally, Jordan stressed its important not to reach for antibiotics every time a horse has the sniffles. If he has a virus, for example, antibiotics won't help and they could lead to drug resistance.

"We need to prevent the continued emergence of MRSA by avoiding unnecessary use of antimicrobials in horses," he suggested.

The study, "Carriage of methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus by veterinarians in Australia," was published in May in the Australian Veterinary Journal. The abstract is available on PubMed.

About the Author

Marie Rosenthal, MS

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