The Real Truth On Vaccinating Pets, Including Common Explanations for Vaccine Hesitancy


How we feel – right or wrong – regarding our own health has long spilled over to animal health. In 2019 (noteworthy, this was before the pandemic), the World Health Organization defined vaccine hesitancy as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” And also defined vaccine hesitancy as a threat to world health.

A free rabies vaccination program for dogs in Indonesia

This column, while absolutely factual, will be attacked by some based on their views of what they think are facts based on misinformation and/or disinformation. I have no political agenda. My sole agenda is the same as it’s always been, and that is to protect our pets.

For starters, consider One Health is real and so are diseases that can be passed from animals to humans (zoonosis). Rabies is at the top of that list.

You never hear about rabies in the U.S., NOT because we have no rabies but solely because we vaccinate. Rabies deaths worldwide hover around 60,000 (though some suggest that number is far higher as rural places in some nations may not report); and the reality is that the cause 99 percent of the time are dog bites. Want to prevent human fatalities, vaccinate over 70 percent of the dogs – that is the magic number for herd immunity, or more accurately community immunity to kick in. In other words, enough individuals among a larger population are vaccinated to effectively stop the spread. That magic number is approximate and varies greatly on the transmissibility of the disease in question and other factors. The need to hit that magic number is arguably crucial for rabies as rabies is fatal to humans and animals.

 10 Explanations for Not Vaccinating Pets

 Here are 10 concerns for not vaccinating pets with my responses:

  • “My pet hates getting vaccines.”

    Busy licking peanut butter, this puppy has no idea she’s being vaccinated, and doesn’t care

Children don’t necessarily love the vaccination experience either. However, pediatricians have become creative about disarming fear, which is what veterinarians and veterinary technicians and nurses are increasingly doing with huge success with guidance of the Fear Free initiative and Cat Friendly Practices. If you feel your veterinarian doesn’t care about the emotional well-being of your pet, you might consider another veterinarian.

  • “I don’t like getting vaccines, so I don’t want to put my pet through that”

Cat looks back after the prick but is enjoying licking tuna juice more than he cares about anything else

It isn’t necessary for pets to suffer emotional trauma because of a vaccine. And now there are various vaccines which are less volume (yet equality as effective) and others which are intranasal and therefore even less invasive. In any case, let’s consider bioethics. By all guidelines which veterinarians follow, it would be irresponsible and unethical to NOT vaccinate appropriately, as veterinarians are trained to protect both animal and human health. Ethically, similarly, the choice we make for pets is to protect them.”

  • “I don’t want to give all the vaccines at once”

Absolutely – and dependent on the combination of vaccines and the individual pet – nearly all veterinarians and veterinary technicians and nurses agree. Simply make more than a single appointment dependent on need and the pet.

  • “I am worried about side-effects of vaccines”

Vaccines are not without potential risk but the benefits overwhelm the miniscule possibility that anything can go wrong. Risk/benefit isn’t mere hyperbole.

Following the thoughtful protocol for feline vaccinations

In cats, there’s a protocol which I honestly wish more veterinarians would follow, which even further mitigates some risks.

 Most vaccine reactions in dogs and cats are injection site soreness or lethargy, perhaps continuing for a day or so. It’s a small price to pay for protection from disease. What’s more, when a veterinary professional is made aware an adverse response or side effect has previously occurred in the past, action may be taken to lessen the impact the next time around. In a miniscule percent of pets, there can be a serious allergic or anaphylactic response, which typically occurs immediately post-vaccine. Next time, an alternative approach is suggested.    

  • “I don’t believe the vaccines work.”

People so often misunderstand, vaccines aren’t always there to prevent disease all together, though many serve to do just that. Other vaccines offer protection against severe disease and vaccinated animals may still suffer from mild illness in some cases, but their signs are notably less severe than they would have been if not vaccinated. These vaccines achieve what they are intended to do. Also, some vaccines -such as the vaccines for canine influenza virus or dog flu – prevent community spread as vaccinated animals are not contagious.”

  • “Vaccines cause problems like autism in people and likely pets too.”

According to multiple current peer-reviewed published journal articles, there actually is no connection between vaccine administration and autism in humans. However, sticking to what I know best – I suggest that there is zero evidence that dogs or cats suffer from autism in the first place or for that matter any mental health condition associated with vaccines. 

  • “I don’t vaccinate myself – I am not vaccinating my pet – as I don’t believe in it.”

“I know people who are vegans and as a result their cats are only offered a vegan diet. The cats have no choice in the matter, but we know cats are obligate carnivores. Among other issues, cats fed this type of diet may yield a taurine (an amino acid which cats produce from protein) deficiency which can cause a heart disease called dilated cardiomyopathy. Our best choices may not be what’s best for our pets.”.

  • “My pet is too old or my pet is undergoing treatment for a disease and a vaccine is concerning.”

You might be totally correct. It depends on the vaccine(s) we’re talking about and the health, age and lifestyle of the individual pet. This is where veterinary discretion matters. If you believe your veterinarian is pushing vaccines just for the sake of income, the reality is that vaccines don’t generate much income. Still, perception matters; if the trust factor between you and your veterinarian is fractured consider another veterinarian.

  • “Can’t we check out pet’s titer’s first?”

That is checking your pet’s immunity (an antibody blood test that can discern if a previous vaccine is still protecting a dog’s immune system). This might even be a good idea in some cases for some vaccines but having said that gauging titer’s is not a perfect science.

  • “I can’t afford all the required vaccines and there is no clinic near where I live:”

Should a dog bite without vaccine status for the rabies vaccine, a cascade of problems and liabilities can occur

Accessibility is a real problem in some parts of the country and for some pet parents – however, low cost vaccines are available in most places in the U.S. Finding a vet clinic near you and transportation to get there can be a challenge in some places – a challenge which experts are increasingly aware and working to solve.”

Prevention is Far Preferred to Treatment

I previously mentioned dog flu. In the U.S., both dog flu strains remain novel viruses – so if a dog is exposed, the dog will get the flu. Some lucky dogs don’t get ill, but they still shed or spread the virus (sound familiar? – that’s been the case for all of the variations of the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 which causes COVID-19). However, vaccination not only protects dogs against severe symptoms of dog flu, it limits community spread – which helps us (with enough dogs vaccinated) to actually limit the disease with significant herd or community immunity. While a small percent of dogs actually succumb to dog flu, it’s not such a small percent if that dog happens to be your dog. Vaccinated dogs nearly never die of dog flu, and are less likely to be hospitalized (compared to unvaccinated dogs).

Leptospirosis does appear to be on the rise for an assortment of reasons

Leptospirosis is on the rise across the U.S. This is a bacterial infection is spread through the urine of infected animals, from city rats to raccoons to coyotes, and list of mammals is quite long – including various farm animals and unvaccinated dogs. Lepto is another one of those infections where dogs who are infected may spread without exhibiting any signs of illness. However,  lepto can also be deadly. And leptospirosis can potentially sicken people. Should an infected (and unvaccinated) dog have an accident and a human – like a toddler – move through it and then put hand to mouth, lepto can be transmitted. With the rise of lepto in the U.S. among urban wildlife and rats, I am personally worried we could witness a rise of this disease in people primarily due to unvaccinated dogs. If that occurs dogs will be blamed. Instead, I suggest blaming those who refuse to or don’t know to vaccinate.

Absolutely, not all vaccines are for all pets. There are many factors, including those mentioned above. Most veterinarians consider the individual pet and follow Vaccine Guidelines – which are public, for dogs from the American Animal Hospital Association for cats, as directed by the American Association of Feline Practitioners.

We may all have the right to not vaccinate appropriately however just because it is your right does not make it the right decision for your pet(s).