There’s been a lot of media attention to the anti-vaccination movement, particularly its role in the ongoing measles outbreak in the U.S. Yes, measles – a disease that was virtually eradicated more than a decade ago, but is showing a resurgence. Over the past few years, veterinarians have been noticing an uptick in the number of pets that are not being vaccinated, due to similar anti-vaccination ideology.
Like measles, viruses such as canine distemper, canine parvovirus, and feline parvovirus (which causes panleukopenia in cats) are highly contagious; they’re easily spread from an infected pet to another. In many cases, an infected pet does not have to appear ill to infect others. This means that a disease can rapidly gain a foothold in a population with even a small number of at-risk and unvaccinated animals. Rabies, which isn’t spread as readily as these other diseases, is a significant risk to people and animals, and vaccination against rabies – even for indoor pets – is required in most areas.
Vaccination is the primary reason we no longer have the domestic dog variant (strain) of rabies in the U.S. Vaccination is also the reason that diseases like distemper, parvo and panleukopenia have become less common in our pets, but this trend could easily be reversed by the same circumstances that are allowing measles to regain a foothold. And that’s a terrifying thought to veterinarians, who’ve been on the front lines fighting these devastating diseases.
Unvaccinated pets are not only at risk themselves, but put other pets at risk. Pets that are at highest risk include young pets who haven’t had their full series of vaccines yet and are not fully protected; and pets with immunosuppressive diseases or that are receiving steroids, chemotherapy, or other medications or treatments that reduce their immune system’s ability to ward off infection and disease. And because there are no vaccines that are 100% effective, there are animals who’ve been vaccinated but the vaccine hasn’t quite provided enough protection (either due to the vaccine or due to some factor associated with the individual pet), putting them at risk if exposed to an infected animal.
We vaccinate against these diseases because they’re not only contagious, they’re deadly. And in many cases, if your pet survives the illness, he or she may have long-term health problems.
Like any medication given to or procedure performed on you or your pet, vaccination does carry risk. The potential adverse responses to vaccines can vary from mild to severe, but most of these vaccine responses are mild and resolve quickly. For cat owners, the risk and fear of sarcoma formation is real, but the frequency of sarcoma formation has dramatically reduced due to improvements in vaccines, vaccine frequency, and guidelines for location of vaccination. For the majority of pets, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
How frequently should you vaccinate your pet? It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing, and not every pet needs every vaccine. For dogs, the American Animal Hospital Association develops Canine Vaccination Guidelines. For cats, the American Association of Feline Practitioners develops Feline Vaccination Guidelines. For your own dog or cat, your veterinarian can use these guidelines to tailor a vaccination program that provides the right protection for your pet.
We understand pet owner’s concerns about vaccination, but urge pet owners to base their opinions on science and not ideology. Vaccinating your pet not only protects your pets, but your friends’ and neighbors’ pets as well. You’ve got enough other things to worry about, and having your pet’s health threatened by a preventable disease shouldn’t be one of them. Talk to your veterinarian about the vaccination schedule that’s right for your pet, based on your pet’s risk of exposure.