Vaccinations for your dog or cat can be a contentious, emotional and frustrating topic to discuss. It would be rare (and tragic) to find a pet caretaker who did not want to provide the best health decisions possible for their dog or cat. Regarding vaccinations, the decisions are not always easy and there are many sources that offer conflicting recommendations. This column is not written to offer any direct guidance but is meant to inform readers about a few of the common concerns regarding pet vaccinations.
Why vaccinate? It may seem that the answer is simple, to help prevent illnesses that can affect our pets by introducing an antigen that will trigger an immune response. The dog’s or cat’s body can then be prepared to recognize and respond to the specific disease, if it is exposed to it. Diseases such as rabies and distemper are extremely serious and pose a direct threat to human health, but can be prevented with vaccinations. The critical importance of these vaccines, along with several others, are often referred to as core vaccines are generally not disputed except for how often they are boosted and in what combinations (if any) they are given with other vaccines.
What are the core vaccines? The list varies from state to state, but core vaccines would be considered necessary anywhere in United States. Most states recognize that for dogs, rabies, distemper, parvovirus and canine hepatitis are core. Core vaccinations for cats typically include rabies, feline panleukopenia (feline distemper) feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus (rhinotracheitis). With the exception of rabies vaccines, no vaccines are required, only recommended. A non-core vaccine does not mean that it is not important but considerations may be taken into account such as climate/location in the country, a pet’s likelihood of exposure and health status relating to age or underlying medical conditions, for example. Non-core canine vaccines typically include Bordetella (kennel cough), Lyme, leptospirosis and canine influenza. Non-core feline vaccines are feline leukemia virus, Bordetella, Chlamydophila felis and feline immunodeficiency virus.
The scheduling of vaccines is based on the vaccine manufacturers’ guidelines and veterinarians’ recommendations along with pet caregivers’ input, and generally is spaced out over the first year of a pet’s life at set intervals. Annual boosters after the initial vaccine series are where opinions can vary greatly and the topic of over-vaccinating begins. There is no 100% right or wrong answer here, making the responsibility rest on the pet caretaker’s decision.
There are risks that come with vaccinations for pets and although these risks have become fewer in recent years due to improvements in the vaccines, certain precautions need to be followed. The most common vaccine reaction is considered minor with some short-lived itching or mild soreness near the injection site. Some pets will suffer a more pronounced and serious allergic reaction that often begins with swelling around the face or near the injection site, difficulty breathing and hives with severe reactions of shock and death. Most veterinary practices will have pet owners wait at the facility for 15 to 30 minutes after vaccinations so that if there is an immediate reaction, the pet can be treated very quickly. Another policy that some veterinarians have in place if owners are willing to increase the number of visits, is to not administer more than one vaccine at a time. When a combination of vaccines are given, it may overload the immune response and it is much more difficult to determine which vaccine the pet is sensitive to.
Booster vaccines act as an immune system reminder, typically annual or every three years depending on which vaccine, but many immune systems keep the antigen active without a booster. This is where there is a great deal of controversy over whether we are over-vaccinating or boosting vaccines too often. One solution to this concern is requesting a titer test prior to the vaccination. A titer is a blood test that will determine if the antigen is still present in the pet’s body. If it is, then no vaccine booster is necessary, thus limiting the number of vaccines administered. In the recent past, titers were much more expensive than simply having the booster vaccine, so many pet caretakers opted for their dog or cat to be boosted without checking if it was necessary or not.
The risks of over-vaccinating your pet are part of the controversy. Research and studies are just that, including concerns about canine autism, overstimulated immune systems, degenerative diseases and cancers. These studies are all important in our understanding of diseases in our pets, but they need to be scrutinized carefully. Cancer at injection sites from certain vaccines has been a great concern that prompted some pet caregivers to stop vaccinating altogether. Manufacturers have improved vaccines and veterinarians have learned about administration at less risky locations. We need to continue to question protocols in order to stay current and willing to change.
First-time pet owners, especially, are often shocked by how many vaccines veterinarians recommend and consider that it is part of a profit producing scheme. Veterinarians and their practices do not depend on profits from vaccinations but do depend on keeping pets healthy and pet owners happy, which means that preventative medicine, like vaccines, are a priority.
A “better safe than sorry” approach is usually given with regard to vaccinations in part because no one knows what the real risks of exposure are. Climate change, animal importation, pet care settings, pets traveling with owners and overall improvements in options for quality of life for our pets change opinions of vaccinations. Feeling that your pet’s veterinarian is listening to your concerns and taking your pet’s uniqueness and individuality into consideration in an open and comfortable discussion is the best proactive policy. As a pet caregiver, you need to be informed about the importance and the risks of vaccinations along with having an understanding that, aside from rabies, all pet vaccinations are based on recommended guidelines.
There are thousands of websites that offer information about vaccine protocol, most with up-to-date, accurate data combined with experience-driven facts that have “pro” and “anti” vaccination viewpoints. There are also plenty of publications that provide very little information and unrealistic anecdotes relating to a single tragic experience where some of the circumstances are omitted, to make an inaccurate point about the risks that all vaccines carry with them. Be a curious and reflective reader with all pet care information. Here are a few sites that offer differing input on the topic of dog and cat vaccinations:
Terry Hannum is a licensed veterinary technician, a farmer and an animal advocate. If you have a subject you would like to have her address, email email@example.com. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/news/lifestyles.