Why are antibiotics used in livestock production?

Beginning January 1st, 2017 the Veterinary Feed Direction (VFD) rule is changing the use of antimicrobials in agriculture. One of the largest changes is that animal producers are no longer able able to buy over the counter medicated feed if it contains antimicrobials important to human health. This means that all producers must work directly with veterinarians for permission to use medications such as antibiotics in feed only when necessary. Producers will also not be able to use antimicrobials in feed for the purpose of growth promotion or feed efficiency. The FDA has instituted these changes to help keep humans and animals safe and help prevent further antimicrobial resistance. It is important to remember that antibiotics are necessary to treat certain diseases and prevent poor animal welfare. Banning the use of all antimicrobials can have a negative impact!  

Antibiotics are used in livestock production for two basic reasons: disease treatment and disease prevention. Just like humans, animals are prone to bacterial infections. As in human medicine, antibiotics are used to effectively treat those infections. In livestock production, antibiotics can also be used to prevent disease. There are times in an animal’s life, such as weaning, where certain diseases can be very common. Antibiotics are sometimes used to prevent these diseases from becoming established in the first place. The video below explains how and why antibiotics are used in livestock production.


With fewer infections, animals receiving preventative antibiotics are, in most cases, healthier.  In turn, those animals tend to grow faster. This has led to the notion that preventative antibiotics are “growth promotants.” In reality, all antibiotics have an “indication” or directions as to how the antibiotics can be used. This is dictated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For example, penicillin, a common antibiotic may be “indicated for the treatment of pneumonia in cattle.” There are similar indications on your bottle of aspirin. Of all the antibiotics available for use in livestock, very few have indications for “growth promotion.” Most preventative antibiotics are indicated for the prevention of specific diseases. Preventing diseases, however, can have the added effect of faster growth. 

For more detailed information on how antibiotics are used in livestock production, visit http://www.ansc.purdue.edu/faen/

FAQs about antibiotics in animal production

Featured Resource

Scientists from Purdue University explain what happens to antibiotics after they are used in animal production.

Scientist explains proper use of antibiotics

Antibiotic use in livestock production can be controversial. Some consumers worry that dangerous bacteria will become resistant to antibiotics. In this article, Dr. Paul Ebner explains more about how antibiotics are actually used in the animal industry: Proper antibiotic use helps prevent livestock disease

Follow Us