Many of us have long taken antibiotics for granted, rarely giving a thought to how revolutionary these medications were when they were first put on the front lines of the war against bacterial disease some 80 years ago. They seemed nothing short of a miracle, turning what had been life-threatening infections into road kill on the highway of medical progress.

Perhaps because of their power, we started thinking antibiotics could be thrown at nearly every health problem. Before we came to recognize the threat of drug-resistant bacteria – the “super bugs” that keep researchers up at night – the medical establishment dispensed a lot more of these medications. Today, in addition to their use in the human and companion animal population, antibiotics are widely administered to food animals.

Fortunately, we’re all starting to understand the limits of antibiotics and doctors are adjusting their practices accordingly. Your own doctor isn’t going to prescribe antibiotics for the flu, because they don’t work on viruses, only on bacteria. For the same reason, your pet’s doctor won’t let you pick up antibiotics for your dog or cat without an accurate diagnosis. Likely as not, that means your veterinarian is going to need to see your pet.

Diagnosis is Crucial

Your veterinarian isn’t trying to make your life more difficult by insisting on seeing your pet before prescribing an antibiotic. Making sure these medications are used only when needed is just plain good medicine. Following guidelines for use protects not only your pet, but you, and the larger population of animals and people everywhere.

From your veterinarian’s point of view, that starts with making sure your pet is accurately diagnosed with a condition that can be successfully treated not only with an antibiotic but with the right antibiotic. This requires all your veterinarian’s diagnostic tools, not only his education and experience, but what he sees, smells and feels in a comprehensive physical exam. It also means hearing what you have observed, and asking questions to gather more information about what you’ve seen. It may also require taking a sample and growing the bacteria – this is called “culturing” – to find out what it is and what it will respond to. Finally, any course of treatment involving an antibiotic may require a follow-up exam.

Asking the right questions will enable your veterinarian to dispense the right antibiotic in the right dose. This is good practice, because not only does your pet need the right antibiotic, but also we all have a stake in making sure the dose isn’t adding to the larger threat of drug-resistant bacteria.

In short, we need to restore our respect for antibiotics.