Over the next two years, new rules covering animal antibiotics will phase out over the counter availability. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The way farmers treat their sick livestock and poultry is about to change.

By 2023 most so-called medically important animal antibiotics will only be available with a written prescription from a veterinarian, according to new animal antibiotic guidelines released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration this past summer. Previously, farmers could obtain those same medications over the counter at the nearest farm supply store.

The idea behind this, according to Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, is slowing and controlling the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant pathogens and bacteria that have surfaced over the years.

“Science does not know all the ways we end up with these resistant pathogens and bacteria,” said Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. “But the truth is, it has been occurring more [and] for years there has been an increasing problem of antibiotics not working as well as they should.”

Among those are antibiotics used to treat Staph aureus, one of the bacteria responsible for contagious mastitis in dairy cattle.

The FDA is implementing the new guidelines so all livestock antibiotics are used under the supervision and direction of a licensed veterinarian and only in those cases where it makes clinical sense to do so, according to Lichtenwalner.

That means anyone with livestock or poultry needs to make sure they are in what is known as a veterinarian client-patient relationship, or VCPR.

Simply put, a VCPR exists when a veterinarian knows and trusts a client, understands what is going on with their animals well enough to diagnose and prescribe effectively and that the animal’s owner has agreed to comply with the veterinarian’s instructions.

Farmers with an existing relationship with a veterinarian should work with them as the need arises for antibiotics prescriptions as the FDA phases in the new guidelines. Anyone who does not have a VCPR should start looking for a farm vet now to make sure they will have access to antibiotics if needed.

“These relationships are so important,” Lichtenwalner said. “The veterinarian knows the farmer, the farmer knows the veterinarian and they trust each other, the vet has been to the farm and knows the animals and can give the prescription to the farmer who can then have it filled.”

There is a lot of sense to this, she said.

“The farmer has done the right things and is now using drugs responsibly in the eyes of the FDA,” Lichtenwalner said. “Everybody is engaged in the process.”

For farmers in need of a veterinarian, the Maine Veterinary Medical Association maintains a list of licensed livestock veterinarians.

In 2017 the FDA issued similar regulations covering antibiotics used in livestock feed or drinking water. But a small percentage of injectable, intramammary tube and boluses remained available over the counter.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.