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the big vaccine debate spills over to pets

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 resurgence of long-forgotten diseases.


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?


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 The great news is that most veterinarians are abandoning these outdated strategies and embracing my “Only What They Need When They Need It” vaccination philosophy.


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, distemper, 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

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Posted by Donna Muller
on November 24 2015 14:44

Last summer it was time for our Black Lab Max's rabies shot. He was active and playful for a formerly overweight dog who had lost his sight due to diabetes. After he got the shot, we were walking him to the car when his legs collapsed on the hot pavement of the parking lot. We ran in to get the vet, but the secretary said he will be with you after this patient. We anxiously waited 10-15 minutes, begging the office to see him, while Max tried unsuccessfully to stand up. When the vet came out, we thought he would take him in & examine him for a possible broken leg. But he lifted him up and placed him in our car's back seat, and said he is OK. We were dumbfounded and drove home. Max stumbled out of the car with our help. Over a week, he was able to walk slowly, but weakly. But over the next month his rear legs became weaker and you could see the muscles shriveling up. Soon after he could barely lift his hind quarters off the floor, and we had to assist him with a sling to get him outside to do his business. He was moaning in pain (even with the pain pills the vet prescribed), scratching the walls. Dragging him out to pee/poop was no life, even though he ate well, and wagged his tail with joy when he saw us. We put him to sleep July 4th. The vet insists that his legs were weak before the shot, and if any reaction would happen, it would be immediate. Well, it was! We hate to give our new baby Black Lab rabies shots, but it is the law.

Posted by Nancy McDonald
on March 03 2015 08:53

I have a Frenchie, 18 months old. Her 1st Lyme shot produced a bad reaction. So she no longer gets it. She had another reaction when she got 2-3 vaccinations together. From now on the Vet will do one at a time with I believe a cortisone shot before hand. I will still continue with the required vaccinations in spite of these issues.

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