Answering Email: To Vaccinate or Not; Slow Red-Footed Tortoise; Cat With Parkinson's; Cat Splashes


By Steve Dale

Q: My 6-year-old Maltese seems pretty healthy to me, but my veterinarian still insists that the dog get vaccines every year. A holistic vet told me that since dogs just stay home and walk around the block, in reality, vaccines aren’t needed every year. He went on to say that veterinarians give the injections, knowing this is a risk to pets’ health, so they can make money. Do you believe these yearly vaccines are necessary? — R.R., Cyberspace

A: “Vaccines serve a real purpose. Every dog should be evaluated for protection on an annual basis,” says Dr. Link Welborn, past president of the American Animal Hospital Association (AHHA), and chairperson of the committee that formulated the AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. “However, not every dog needs to be vaccinated every year, and not every dog requires every vaccination. It’s important to consider which vaccines are appropriate. In my own practice, only about 15 percent of the dogs are vaccinated (in any given year).” That’s because some vaccines are offered every three years, and because not all vaccines are appropriate for all dogs.

The Canine Vaccination Guidelines recommend annual titer testing, which helps determine a dog’s immunity. The guidelines also recommend that vets take lifestyle and geography into consideration. For example, in New England, a vaccine for Lyme disease is likely a good idea for most dogs. However, in Tampa, FL, where Welborn is located, Lyme isn’t as much of an issue. If the Lyme disease vaccine is considered appropriate, that vaccine, and others — such as the vaccine for the canine influenza virus — are only available annually, so there’s no other choice except to vaccinate for these problems each year.

While certainly vaccines cost veterinarians money (after all, they have to purchase them), they don’t rely on vaccine income to drive their businesses. They never have. However, some consumers still believe veterinarians make big bucks from vaccines. That simply isn’t true. In fact, some veterinarians today make that point by only charging a few dollars for vaccines, or even offer them at no cost. What’s most important, says Welborn, is preventive care. Sometimes such care includes vaccines, but often it doesn’t.

A small percentage of pets may have a reaction to vaccines, and if a reaction occurs once to a specific vaccine, it may likely recur. In some cases, those pets can skip the vaccine all together.

However to suggest all vaccines should be avoided by all pets is a dangerous approach. For starters, in most places, a rabies vaccine (available in annual, 3- or 5-year forms) is the law, as it should be. Also consider that diseases like canine distemper have not disappeared. In areas where distemper is rare, people are vaccinating.

The Canine Vaccine Guidelines are available, at no charge, here.


Q: I know this sounds crazy, but my red-footed tortoise, Gonzalez (as in Speedy) seems a little off, a little slow. He’s eating, but not as much as in summers past. Should I be worried? — D.C., Nashville, TN

A: Maybe. Tortoises don’t typically roll over on their backs to indicate they aren’t feeling well. “You may be picking up on some red flags,” says Dr. Byron de la Navarre, a Chicago veterinarian with a special interest in reptiles and other unusual pets. What’s more, de la Navarre has a red-footed tortoise of his own, named Sweets.

“In the winter, this sort of behavior might be considered normal, but typically not in the summer,” he says. “I suggest you see a veterinarian with experience treating tortoises.” To find a veterinarian with an interest in cold-blooded pets, check out the Association of Reptilian and Amphibian Veterinarians.


Q: Could my 13-year-old cat have Parkinson’s disease? Hercules shakes his whole head before he falls asleep. It’s like what happens when you touch a cat’s ear and it sometimes flicks. Should I be concerned? — L.E., Cyberspace

A: “While cats don’t get Parkinson’s disease, you should be concerned enough to figure out what’s going on,” says Dr. Elizabeth Colleran, of Chico, CA, past president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. The list of possible problems is long, from dental disease to something going on inside one or both of Hercules’ ears, from a polyp to excess wax or ear mites. If he’s also circling or sometimes has a tilted head, the problem may be vestibular disease.

Since this shaking apparently only happens before your cat takes a nap, videotape the behavior so you can play it back for your veterinarian.

If your veterinarian seems stuck, it might be a good idea to seek a referral to an American Association of Feline Practitioners Cat Friendly Practice.

Q: Why does my cat touch her paw to the water before drinking? I thought cats don’t like to get their paws wet. — G.R., Fort Myers, FL

A: In general, cats don’t enjoy getting their paws (or any part of their bodies) wet. However, it may be more important for your cat to determine the water level. Cats are generally far sighted, and since no one makes kitty bifocals, your cat may prefer patting the water rather than misjudging its depth and getting water up her nose. A small rubber ducky or children’s toy that floats might help your cat detect the water surface. It’s also possible your kitty is testing the water temperature to make sure it’s just right for drinking. Or maybe the splashing is her idea of fun!