Do we vaccinate our pets too often? Yes, if they are being given all of their vaccines on an annual basis, reports Dr. Ronald Schultz, a veterinary immunologist and chair of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. His opinion is based on more than 30 years of vaccine research.
Dr. Schultz serves on the American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccine Task Force and the American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Vaccine Task Force, which provide recommendations to the industry for vaccine programs.
Dr. Schultz is well known for his research studies, which date back to the 1970s. In 1978, he began recommending “core” vaccines be given no more frequently than every three years. In 2003, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) finally agreed that these vaccines don’t need to be given more frequently than every three years. The “core” vaccines are necessary to prevent four highly contagious, potentially fatal diseases — rabies, parvovirus, canine adenovirus-2, and distemper.
The statement “If it doesn’t help, it won’t hurt” is not true for vaccinations. According to Dr. Jean Dodds, president of Hemopet, a non-profit animal blood bank, some vaccines should not be given annually. She states that giving vaccines too often does nothing but put pets at risk.
Common risks from vaccinations include:
- Injection-site tumors (primarily cats)
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Behavioral changes
- Ear and skin conditions
- Kidney disease
- Liver disease
- Thyroid disease
- Susceptibility to other diseases
- Immune Mediated Blood Disorders
Although vaccines cause a multitude of problems in both dogs and cats, some problems are species specific. The most common and alarming disease that we see in cats is the development of injection-site fibrosarcomas. The AVMA conducted a study to try to determine why 160,000 cats in the United States develop terminal cancer at their injection sites each year. These tumors are extremely invasive and difficult to remove. Although much less common, dogs also may develop these injection-site tumors.
According to a Purdue University study, vaccine-induced organ failure should be suspected when it occurs shortly after a vaccine. Dr. Larry Glickman of Purdue University states that following routine vaccination, there is a significant rise in the antibodies dogs produce against their own tissues. Some of these antibodies target the thyroid gland, connective tissue (such as the connective tissue found in the heart valves), red blood cells and DNA.
A common problem seen in cats is the development of chronic kidney disease, and recent research from Colorado State University suggests a link between pet vaccination for feline distemper and development of chronic renal failure.
Another common problem in our canine companions is arthritis. A 1997 study of 4,000 dogs performed by Canine Health Concerns showed a high number of dogs developing mobility problems after they were vaccinated.
Some vaccines are not recommended because the disease is not severe enough to justify the risk of vaccinating for it. Because of this, Dr. Richard Ford, a professor of medicine at North Carolina State, recommends against giving the coronavirus and giardia vaccines.
The bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine is commonly required by groomers and boarding facilities but, according to Dr. Schultz, kennel cough is not a vaccine-preventable disease. It usually occurs because of many factors, including stress, dust, humidity, molds, etc., and it is often a moderate-to-mild, self-limiting disease. At Sarasota Animal Medical Center, we assess the risks and benefits of specific vaccinations for each pet. We discuss the options with the owners and choose the best vaccine protocol for that individual animal.
Even though there are many potential problems associated with vaccinations, the need to vaccinate against potentially-fatal disease still outweighs the risk. Vaccination with the core vaccines for canine distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus is highly recommended in dogs. Cats should receive the feline rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia vaccines. Outdoor cats should receive the feline leukemia vaccine for at least the first few years of life.
The rabies vaccine is required by law. The disease is both fatal and incurable, with potential health risks to humans.
Vaccination programs are changing, and they will continue to change. Every pet is an individual, and his or her exposure and risk factors should be evaluated prior to vaccinating.
Some vets still recommend vaccinating once a year, saying, “better safe than sorry.” Unfortunately, just the opposite is true. Over-vaccination may result in a myriad of health issues that range from minor to fatal.
Just remember — more isn’t better when it comes to pet vaccinations
Anne Luther, DVM, MS, BA, CVA, is the owner of Sarasota Animal Medical Center, located at 3646 Birky Street in Sarasota. In addition to office appointments, Sarasota Animal Medical Center also offers veterinary house calls.