Measles is making the news again. After largely laying dormant for decades, the potentially fatal contagious disease is back, infecting over 100 children in the latest outbreak stemming from a single unvaccinated child visitor to California’s Disneyland. Confusion over vaccines, inflamed by high-profile Hollywood celebrities and social media, has led many parents to question the safety, benefits, and necessity of childhood immunizations. That confusion is spilling over to pets, with many owners skipping vaccines and leaving veterinarians worried about a resurgence of long-forgotten diseases.

Should you vacinate your pet?

Vaccines have saved more human and animal lives and prevented more diseases than any other medical intervention. Polio, smallpox, animal rabies, canine and feline distemper, and canine parvovirus have either been completely or nearly eradicated through vaccination programs. 40 or 50 years ago these diseases killed tens of thousands and permanently disabled hundreds of thousands more.

Modern vaccines are so good that in 23 years, I’ve only diagnosed one case of canine distemper. 20 years ago I routinely treated canine parvovirus; now I manage only a handful of cases each year. Why are pet owners suddenly sour on vaccinating their pets?

The vaccine race

Part of the blame lies with veterinarians. The race for pharmaceutical companies to discover more vaccines resulted in the creation and promotion of inoculations that weren’t necessary for the majority of pets. I call this the “Vaccinate Every Pet with Every Thing Every Year” approach to vaccination and I’ve fought it publicly for almost two decades.

The truth is only a few core vaccinations are compulsory for most dogs and cats; the rest are based on individual risk. Before your pet receives any vaccine, ask your vet, “Why is this necessary?” Most veterinarians welcome this interest and sill gladly justify every injection they administer.

Unfortunately, some veterinarians still insist on a “One Size Fits All” attitude on immunizations, leaving many pet owners angry and distrustful. Pet owners suffered higher and higher charges for more and more vaccines without adequate explanation or validation. The great news is that most veterinarians are abandoning these outdated strategies and embracing my “Only What They Need When They Need It” vaccination philosophy.

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Do your research

The bulk of the blame lies with rumors, innuendos and vaccination falsehoods. During my career I’ve heard vaccines blamed for everything from anxiety to urinating on the couch to cataracts and cancer. While vaccine reactions are real, they’re also incredibly rare. Numerous studies evaluating over a million of pets find the rate to be 0.3%1 to 0.5%2 with post-vaccination lethargy being the most common complaint. Vaccine-associated sarcoma in cats, a particularly aggressive malignancy, is even lower, estimated to affect one in 1,000 to 10,000 cats (0.1% to 0.01%).

While I wish vaccine and medication reactions were 0%, I’m comfortable with existing rates and satisfied that manufacturers are pursuing safer technologies to further reduce risk. The bottom line with vaccines is this is a question you should be asking your veterinarian, not Dr. Google.

Measles, smallpox, polio, parvo, distemper and rabies are real, and devastating, diseases. Vaccines have largely minimized these infections to fairy tale status in the 21st century. These recent outbreaks of preventable diseases indicate some parents aren’t adequately educated on the horrors families endured with infectious diseases.

As a veterinarian, I can tell you distemper, parvo, feline leukemia and rabies are horrific. I will continue to advocate for appropriate individualized immunizations to eliminate these diseases from the planet. If you have any questions regarding vaccinations and infectious disease risk, ask your veterinarian. There’s no good reason to be confused by vaccinations.


1. Adverse events diagnosed within three days of vaccine administration in dogs J Am Vet Med Assoc. October 2005;227(7):1102-8. George E Moore1; Lynn F Guptill; Michael P Ward; Nita W Glickman; Karen K Faunt; Hugh B Lewis; Lawrence T Glickman

2. Adverse events after vaccine administration in cats: 2,560 cases (2002-2005) J Am Vet Med Assoc. July 2007;231(1):94-100. George E Moore1; Andrea C De Santis-Kerr; Lynn F Guptill; Nita W Glickman; Hugh B Lewis; Lawrence T Glickman

Feb 9, 2015
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