Between June and September 2002 a telephone survey of Italian beef and dairy cattle veterinarians was made to obtain information about their use of antibiotics and their perception of the problem of antimicrobial resistance. A total of 106 veterinarians, selected at random from the membership lists of two professional societies, were interviewed by telephone, using a structured questionnaire concerning their background, training and continuing education activities, and current type of practice; their diagnostic, treatment, and prophylactic practices for mastitis, calf scours and respiratory disease; and their perception of the threat posed by antimicrobial resistance. The median age of the interviewees was 42˙5 (range 28 to 75) years; 62 per cent treated only dairy cattle, 10 per cent treated only beef cattle and 28 per cent treated both. Laboratory support was requested ‘frequently’ or ‘always’ by 67 per cent of the veterinarians when treating mastitis, by 37 per cent when treating calf scours and by 17 per cent when treating respiratory diseases. Twenty per cent reported using prophylactic antibiotics ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ for calf scours, 28 per cent for respiratory diseases, and 62 per cent reported their use ‘always’ or ‘often’ for mastitis. Fluoroquinolones, phenicols or third/fourth-generation cephalosporins were prescribed as first-choice drugs by 54 per cent for calf scours, by 12 per cent for bacterial respiratory diseases and by 6 per cent for mastitis. Therapeutic failure was reported ‘often’ (21 per cent) or ‘sometimes’ (64 per cent) and was the main predictor in a multivariate model of the use of newer antibiotics. The level of awareness of the problem of antibiotic resistance was high, although more than half of the interviewees were confident that new antimicrobial drugs were already available to replace those of lower effectiveness.