Lack of vets raises concern over cautious use of animal drugs

Concerns have been raised that a lack of Maltese vets could be pushing animal breeders to adopt less-than-cautious ways of medicating their animals 

Concerns have been raised that a lack of Maltese vets could be pushing animal breeders to adopt less-than-cautious methods of medicating animals
Concerns have been raised that a lack of Maltese vets could be pushing animal breeders to adopt less-than-cautious methods of medicating animals

A lack of Maltese vets could be pushing animal breeders to adopt less-than-cautious ways of medicating their animals.

An audit report from the European Commission’s food and veterinary office that lauds Malta for its own anti-microbial resistance strategy, has however identified shortcomings in the dispensation of drugs to cure sick animals.

The lack of veterinarians prescribing anti-microbial drugs for sick animals means breeders must necessarily buy over-the-counter drugs, with the risk that these drugs may be applied without any caution to animals.

“These weaknesses, which seem to be further compounded by a lack of veterinarians, limit the knowledge about the situation in Malta and seriously undermine the ability to ensure that antimicrobials are used in a prudent manner and only when considered necessary by a veterinarian,” the report concludes.

According to officials of Malta’s Veterinary Regulation Directorate, although there is a national policy on this medication, in practice it is not mandatory for antimicrobials to be available only on prescription wholesalers or pharmacies. As a result of this, antimicrobials can be obtained from a range of sources including friends, other farmers, visiting veterinarians from other Member States and direct personal imports.

But the quantities of antimicrobials not acquired through pharmacies is unknown and the VRD has noted an increase in packages believed to contain veterinary medicinal products which are detained on entry to Malta.

This suggests that personal imports are becoming more important, presenting a challenge for the prudent use of antimicrobial drugs for animals.

Vets used as last resort

The Maltese government has now committed itself to strengthen the legal basis for a veterinary prescription and the legal distribution of veterinary drugs and the licensing system for wholesale dealers and pharmacies.

Representatives of the Malta Veterinary Association and the pig and dairy cooperatives told the EC that Malta’s relatively small farming sector, coupled with farmers’ tendency to only call vets as a last resort, means it is often not financially worthwhile to establish veterinary practices.

One farmer visited by the FVO inspection said the vet who provided him with prescriptions for medicated feed every three months, rarely visited the farm to check the health status of the animals.

And although other veterinarians carried out such visits, they changed so frequently there was little chance for them to be familiar with the health status of the animals.

The dairy cooperative however said it had received financial support to fund a veterinary service for the sector.

The FVO inspection also revealed that Malta’s animal drugs’ wholesaler stopped requiring prescriptions in 2016, and that based on sales receipts, has been routinely supplying antimicrobials over-the-counter to farmers and to the general public.

A test purchase carried out at a different pharmacy during the visit, showed that it was possible to obtain doxycycline tablets – an antibiotic used in the treatment of a number of types of infections from acne to syphilis – over the counter based on a “description of possible signs of infection in a cat”.

This mean that decisions for the treatment of animals with antimicrobials, “the choice of medicine and the dosage are often made by the animal keeper, rather than by veterinarians”, the FVO said.

Moreover, on the farms visited, no records were available to show the use of veterinary medicinal products, so it was not possible to identify what antimicrobials were used and if this was done in accordance with the label. One farmer told the inspectors that he had obtained antimicrobials labelled in German from a neighbouring farmer. The farmer could not understand German, so he could not be sure that the instructions for use were followed.

All farmers in Malta are required to nominate a veterinarian responsible for animal health and welfare and a list of the nominated veterinarians is maintained by the VRD, a measure that safeguards against malpractice and misuse of antimicrobials.

But it has been difficult for farmers to nominate a veterinarian due to the low number of practising veterinarians.

The Malta Veterinary Association complains of a lack of legal protection for vets, whom they say should not be held responsible for actions taken by farmers without their knowledge or agreement.

The FVO however said it saw clear indications that farmers and vets are increasingly aware of anti-microbial resistance issues and do take steps to use antimicrobials more prudently.

More in Nature