Bella died from the effects of an infection of MRSA. Had I known that MRSA existed in small animals, and had I known of the signs of infection to watch for following surgery, Bella could have been saved. MRSA is crossing the barrier between human and animal; it’s real, it’s life-threatening, and it’s avoidable.
What is MRSA?
MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), sometimes referred to in the media as the SUPERBUG, kills around 5,000 human patients a year. It affects both humans and animals. MRSA is a bacterium that, under normal conditions, is relatively harmless. We all live with different kinds of bacteria (Staphylococcus included) in us and on us without harmful effects, but problems can occur when they get into the blood stream or tissue through a cut or broken skin, particularly if our immune system is weakened. MRSA can be so difficult to treat that in some cases it is fatal.
Staphyloccocus is a genus of gram-positive bacteria, that is, it belongs to that group of bacteria that can be identified by the way they colour when stained. Under the microscope, they appear round (cocci) and form grape-like clusters. Staphyle is the Greek word for bunch of grapes.
Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) has long been known to develop resistance to antibiotics. In the 1940s, S. aureus was found to be resistant to penicillin within a few years of its introduction. Recently, a study of dogs infected with MRSA found that resistance developed within three days! Methicillin (a relative of penicillin) is one of the world’s most powerful antibiotics in use today, so when S.aureus cannot be killed by it, any infection can be extremely difficult to treat.
It has been thought for many years that the extensive (and often unnecessary) use of antibiotics has led to the development of resistant strains of bacteria. Not just in humans, though. Animals of all sorts have been given antibiotics to increase their weight, and some apple farmers in the US spray antibiotics routinely on their fruit trees. All of this goes towards helping bacteria develop resistance to the very things that we need to use to treat serious infections.
MRSA is everywhere, and just as hospitals spread the bug to people, veterinary clinics and surgeries can also serve as a source of contamination of pets and staff.
For pets as well as people, MRSA infection can be life-threatening.
Difference between colonisation and infection
Colonisation is when the organism lives on or in one or more body sites with no signs or symptoms of disease or illness. Colonies usually live in the in the nose or throat, under the arms, on the perineum or in the bowel or on the skin, usually the hands.
Being colonised with MRSA is not the same as having an active infection. Colonisation means that we, or our pets, carry the bacteria without having adverse effects. MRSA is everywhere, but the bacteria only become a problem after entering the body.
Infection usually occurs through a wound of some kind, either because of a skin ulcer that will not heal or through surgery. Infection is different from colonisation because the invading bacteria tend to grow more rapidly and cause ill-effects to the body. These come because of the toxins that the bacteria now pour into the blood, and through the damage that occurs to the surrounding tissue. This causes the symptoms and signs of infection, and need to be treated rapidly.
How is MRSA contracted ?
MRSA is spread by direct contact or by air currents or by sneezes or coughs. Research shows that it moves from the environment to people, from person to person, person to animal, or animal to person or environment. Pets can become colonised by the close physical contact they have with owners and vice verse, or from veterinary staff who fail to wash properly after handling a colonised animal. Surgical sites can become infected by bacteria falling from the skin into the wound, or from contaminated hands or instruments or by droplets from an uncovered mouth or nose.
Mostly, pets become colonised from staff working in vet clinics and hospitals. There is a theory (yet to be proved) that colonisation can occur in hydrotherapy pools if they are not cleaned correctly.