How do antibiotics help animals grow?

Antibiotics in the stall

No factory farming without drugs

Close together: a lot of free-range chickens © branex /

In industrial animal husbandry, the animals are adapted to the type of husbandry. In as little space as possible, in the shortest possible time and with as little human labor as possible, they should grow and put on weight, give milk or lay eggs. Fast and high performance is the most important criterion for breeding and this is what the feeding system is designed for. In addition, there are the close keeping of many animals in a stable and the hygienic conditions. This type of husbandry makes the animals sick and does not work without medication.

Antibiotics, anti-parasite drugs, hormones, psychotropic drugs and pain relievers are part of everyday life in the stables. Without them, the animals would not "function" in the system. On the other hand, those who keep animals healthy and animal-friendly can get by with far fewer drugs. The dispute over veterinary medicinal products is therefore a dispute over the system of animal husbandry as a whole. And it is urgently needed, because the massive use of drugs in the stables is also increasingly threatening people's health.

We are threatened with a world without effective antibiotics

Infographic: Stiftung Warentest

Antibiotics are drugs that are used to treat infections caused by bacteria. Its discovery and use was one of the most important advances in medicine and resulted in the victory over many previously fatal diseases. But the lifespan of an antibiotic is limited: the microorganisms adapt to the active ingredients over time and thus become resistant. Bacteria that are resistant to multiple antibiotics are becoming an increasing problem. Anyone who becomes infected with multi-resistant germs, against which no common antibiotics can help, can even die from simple infections. We are threatened with a post-antibiotic age.

In addition to the too lax dispensing of antibiotics by doctors, the high use of antibiotics in animal husbandry is the most important reason for the increase in multi-resistant germs. The use of antibiotics in the stables is particularly suitable for creating resistance. Because drugs are given less specifically there than in human medicine. Often animals are also treated that are not sick when they change the barn or live in a group with sick animals (metaphylaxis). Antibiotics are also given to healthy animals as a lump sum for disease prevention or as growth promoters (prophylaxis). This practice is not allowed in Germany, but is still common in other parts of the world. Overall, more antibiotics are given to healthy animals than to sick people.

In 2011, over 1,700 tons of antibiotics were administered to animals in Germany. That is three times the amount as in human medicine. In the years that followed, the pure amount fell to almost 1,250 t. But at the same time the use of particularly effective reserve antibiotics in animal husbandry increased significantly. These should be reserved for the treatment of certain diseases in humans.

The problem exists internationally: in the USA around 80% of all antibiotics are given to animals and only 20% to humans. In contrast to the EU, the use of antibiotics to promote growth is also permitted there. In Europe, the Netherlands has taken the first steps in recent years to better control the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. There has long been a great awareness of the problem in Denmark. These two countries in particular have a very high animal density and, despite some sensible rules, still have problems with resistant germs in the stables.

The dealers in the stall

While doctors in human medicine do not sell drugs, but send their patients to the pharmacy for them, veterinarians can earn money by selling veterinary drugs. Depending on the region and animal species, this makes up a significant proportion of income. In the Netherlands, for example, veterinarians earn 25 percent of their income from chickens from antibiotic treatments. This creates an incentive to prescribe as many drugs as possible. However, this is not the fault of the vets, but the politics that create this disincentive.

Because multi-resistant germs are grown in the stables, farmers and veterinarians count as risk cases in hospitals today. They often carry mutli-resistant germs on their skin or in their bodies and can bring them into hospitals.

New European rules for veterinary medicinal products

At the end of 2014, the EU Commission presented proposals for a new European legislation on veterinary medicinal products. Since animals, animal products and even manure are traded across borders in the European internal market, it makes sense to regulate the approval and use of veterinary medicinal products at European level.

However, the Commission wants to improve the availability of veterinary medicines and facilitate distribution. More and not less drugs in the barn are the goal of their prescription proposals, which therefore go in the completely wrong direction.

Veterinary drugs and their breakdown products also get out of the stables into the ground and into the water. Read here how industrial animal husbandry pollutes our drinking water.

The housing conditions are the main reason for the high use of pharmaceuticals in the stables. Read here what this organized cruelty to animals looks like in the various animal species.