Anti-Vaxxers: A Scary Trend in the Pet World


Anti-vaxxers – those opposed to nearly all or even all vaccines – are gaining momentum. Their claims are based largely on misguided and even made up notions regarding human vaccines, and even more distorted information regarding vaccines for animals. You might expect to read this sort of piece in CATSTER or DOGSTER magazines, and the likes of Veterinary Practice News, but this piece is partially prompted by a story that recently appeared in Time magazine.

I make no claims to be an expert on children’s vaccines and any alleged adverse some people believe they cause. However, study after study now discredits any association between vaccines and autism, autoimmune disease or other illnesses. What I do know is that among dogs and cats, there is absolutely no proven association.

Having said that, in cats, the stress on the system created by anxiety of veterinary procedures may prompt enough strain to cause cats carrying the benign enteric corona virus to transform into a deadly disease called feline infectious peritonitis (FIP). Other household stressors could contribute. However, there is zero proof that FIP is specifically caused by exposure to vaccines themselves.

As for autism, there is no solid proof that dogs and cats can even suffer from the disease in first place.

However, facts don’t seem to bother the so-called anti-vaxxers.

The problem is running amuck in the United Kingdom. In its most recent annual report, Britain’s People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) surveyed more over 4,600 pet owners and found that in 2018, about 25 percent of dogs—2.2 million of them—had not had their necessary vaccinations when they were young. Most who didn’t vaccinate said they didn’t believe it was “necessary.”

Don’t Believe It

One common complaint regarding vaccines is “the vaccination will make my pet sick.” I’ll address this one first as an example as to how misinformation can spread from a spark begun by one group online to a wildfire. During the H3N2 canine influenza (dog flu) outbreaks, some dog owners refused vaccines for fear that their best pal would get the flu from the vaccine intended to prevent the flu.

The dog flu vaccine is in fact a killed vaccine, not a live virus. Experts suggest it is impossible for dogs to get the flu from the vaccine.

What I suppose is possible is that that some dogs were infected before being vaccinated with the initial shot or the required booster. Actually, this potential even more strongly suggests the importance of proactively preemptively vaccinating. Here is where there is a cause and effect: Vaccinate enough dogs, and there is no dog flu outbreak in the first place.

Anecdotally, people argue, “I don’t see distemper or rabies,” or whatever illness it is, so why vaccinate? That is absolutely correct. In many places in the U.S., we don’t see diseases we vaccinate for, such as canine distemper. That’s solely because people vaccinate. When we don’t vaccinate large enough numbers, the disease – which can be deadly and expensive to treat – rears again. The term ‘herd immunity’ refers to when statistically enough in a population are vaccinated. Without hitting that number, even now, outbreaks of distemper occur all the time. The same is true for many other illnesses, such as feline distemper (panleukopenia) and canine influenza virus.

Vaccine Schedules Geared for Individuals

Absolutely, not every pet requires every vaccine. Experts who write the Canine Vaccination Guidelines for the American Animal Hospital Association and the Feline Vaccination Guidelines for the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) call some vaccines “core,” which means all pets should have them. Other vaccines are given based on that pet’s individual lifestyle and other factors.

If you live where Lyme disease is endemic (and the geography of Lyme is expanding), a Lyme vaccine is likely a very good idea. However, if your dog lives in a high rise and rarely ever ventures outdoors, that vaccine probably isn’t necessary. The same is true if Lyme doesn’t occur where you are. In this instance, individual pet lifestyle and geography determine if the pet should be vaccinated.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) has an online Lifestyle-Based Vaccine Calculator that addresses this issue for dogs. Check the boxes that describe how your dog lives, and the algorithm recommends the most important vaccines. Of course, all medical decisions – including vaccines – are ultimately a decision that should be made by you and your veterinarian.

Clearly, scientists agree the benefits of vaccinating to hit those numbers to protect the community as well as individuals, outweighs the potential of risks.

Adverse Effects?

Like all vaccines, those created for animals do carry some potential for adverse effects. Most pets don’t ever even experience these – which may include swelling with (or without) some pain at the vaccine site, coughing in dogs, or a very temporary slight fever, lack of appetite and/or lethargy. When animals are known to be affected, veterinarians can often mitigate these minor effects. More serious allergic reactions are very rare, though they can occur.

Still, some pet owners insist that vaccines are a huge detriment. For certain, vaccines are a kind of medication. And in an effort to lessen stress on the body, and potential inflammation at the site of vaccines, there are guidelines on where to give specific vaccines in cats. The intent is also to allow for potential treatment should are rare but aggressive cancer occur, injection-site fibrosarcoma

Veterinarians also now suggest not all vaccines should be given all at once for any pet. Maybe a second visit a week or month later to finish a series. The problem is that some clients maintain they are too busy to return for that second visit. Or suggest, based on their own random claims, which vaccines a pet requires or not.

Another allegation is that veterinarians “get rich” by over-vaccinating. Based on the few dollars veterinarians make per vaccine, that allegation isn’t true. I’m not suggesting that this never occurs. If your veterinarian is blindly vaccinating, without considering your wishes and your pet’s lifestyle then do consider sniffing out an alternative. Most veterinarians do follow the AAFP Vaccination Guidelines for Cats and the AAHA Vaccination Guidelines for Dogs, at least as a starting point.

And increasingly, Cat Friendly Veterinary Practices and Fear Free certified practices and certified veterinary nurses/technicians and veterinarians provide enough distraction so the pet isn’t traumatized by the process of getting those stingy vaccines.

Anti-Vaxxer Legislation

Still, increasingly, some clients want near-zero vaccines as their goal.  In two states, anti-vax activists have sought to go the legislative route. The first such effort, Connecticut House Bill 5659, was filed in the state legislature in 2017 and would have permitted veterinarians not to administer rabies booster shots on schedule if tests of a dog’s blood showed that anti-body concentrations, or titers, were above a certain threshold. The bill would have also allowed the vets to adjust vaccines, by administering smaller doses to smaller dogs, for example.

Somewhat surprisingly, as least thus far, researchers have actually not found scientific relevancy to weight related to vaccine volume, as smaller dosages appear not be particularly beneficial. However, to the anti-vaxxers science is ignored.

The Connecticut bill failed.

Two similar bills were introduced by anti-vaxxers in the New Hampshire state legislature this year. House Bill 331 would have, like the Connecticut bill, allowed veterinarians to administer titer tests to determine the need for a rabies vaccination; House Bill 426 would have allowed pet owners to show proof of such tests in obtaining a dog license. Both bills were killed in committee by unanimous votes.

Though titer testing can certainly have its place, it’s not always accurate.

Rabies Vaccines Mandated by Law, And for a Reason

Many anti-vaxxers want to no rabies vaccines for our pets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 23 cases of human rabies have been reported in the United States in the from 2008-2017. Eight of these were contracted outside of the U.S. and its territories.

According to the World Health Organization, rabies is estimated to cause 59,000 human deaths annually in over 150 countries, with 95 percent of cases occurring in Africa and Asia. Due to widespread underreporting and uncertain estimates, it is likely that this number is a gross underestimate of the true burden of the disease. Nearly all rabies cases are dog-mediated, and the burden of disease is disproportionally borne by rural, poor populations, with approximately half of cases attributable to children under 15.

Countries who experience rabies generally beg for help, which begins with the vaccination of dogs.

In the U.S. and the U.K., the anti-vaxxers seek the opposite, meaning no vaccines. According to the CDC, the ONLY reason why so few humans get this fatal disease in the U.S. is that we vaccinate enough of our pets. Rabies remains in the environment. If we stop vaccinating enough dogs, rabies would be common. Of course, rabies is deadly and highly contagious. In most states rabies vaccines for dogs are the law. Can you imagine what rabies was more common in the U.S.? The government would need to intervene and take dramatic action.

There’s only one word to describe today why physicians hardly ever see measles or polio in the U.S. – vaccines.

The anti-vaxxers suggest they are contemporary thinkers, pushing medicine forward to do what’s “natural.” In fact, the anti-vaxxers would take us all back to the dark ages.