Fall 2017

When Anti-Vaxxers Go to the Vet

To counteract misinformation about vaccines, veterinarians share the latest dos and don’ts for your pets.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Illustration: Hanna Barczyk

The antivaccination movement threatening human health may be moving into veterinary medicine, with some pet owners refusing recommended shots because of concerns over possible side effects. While it’s easy to roll your eyes at the idea of someone worrying about their dog developing autism from a vaccine, veterinarians say that the issue of whether to opt for a particular vaccine is not as black and white for pets as you might think. Here’s what you need to know about pet vaccinations.

Do Get These Vaccines

The rabies vaccination is mandated by law because it is invariably fatal for both animals and humans. If your pet has a questionable rabies vaccine history and bites someone, it will be quarantined at your expense for a minimum of 10 days, explained Michael Stone, a veterinarian at Cummings School’s Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals (and your pet could ultimately be euthanized so that its brain tissue can be tested). A dog or cat with a bite wound of unknown origin will typically need to be quarantined for six months, though states have different laws on that.

For dogs, experts generally agree that puppies should get the “distemper” vaccine—a four-in-one shot that protects against distemper, parainfluenza virus, canine adenovirus, and the highly contagious and potentially deadly parvo virus—and be boostered as adults as needed. The same goes for the feline “distemper” vaccine, which protects against feline distemper and two common respiratory infections.

In terms of timing, veterinary medicine has grown to recognize the importance of vaccinating less frequently, primarily because some cats developed malignant tumors where vaccines had been administered. “After initial vaccination protocols, most vaccines can now go to every three years,” said Mary Labato, V83, a Cummings School clinical professor who practices small-animal internal medicine at the Foster Hospital.

Do Consider These Vaccines

Outside the rabies and distemper vaccines, “everything else should be based on a pet’s particular risk” of contracting a specific disease, said Shari Morana, V93, who founded Community Animal Hospital in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, and sits on the advisory board for Tufts at Tech Community Veterinary Clinic. “If there’s no possible exposure, then don’t vaccinate.” For example, the feline leukemia vaccine really only makes sense for pets that mingle with other cats outdoors or live with other animals that may carry or be exposed to the virus.

Geography matters, too. While it’s not typically a core vaccine, veterinarians in Massachusetts strongly recommended an annual vaccine aimed at preventing leptospirosis, a life-threatening and difficult-to-treat bacterial disease spread in urine from infected wildlife to dogs (and then their owners). “The dog doesn’t have to have direct contact with wild animals, just the urine,” Morana said. “And there are plenty of infected wildlife in our area, even in backyards.”

Don’t Make These Mistakes

There’s a Lyme disease vaccination for dogs that can be effective, but remember that it’s not a magic bullet—some vaccinated dogs still get the disease. Worse yet, the vaccine can offer a false sense of security regarding the need to prevent tick bites, given that it does nothing to protect against the dangerous bacterial diseases ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, as well as four other tick-borne illnesses. “Good tick preventatives and daily tick checks protect pets and people best,” Morana said.

Another important fact to remember is that half-doses don’t count. In February, a Connecticut veterinarian was banned from vaccinating animals for rabies for 25 years because he instructed employees to give pets under 50 pounds half doses of the rabies vaccine. But only full doses of a vaccine should be administered, Stone said, because tests show the shot’s effectiveness at that dose.

Finally, some vaccination-cautious pet owners request an antibody titer—a test of the concentration of antibodies against a particular virus in a pet’s blood—and then skip a vaccine booster if they think the test results point to immunity. Don’t do that. Even if the results suggest a high level of antibodies against the rabies virus, Morana said, they do not qualify as a substitute for legally required vaccination. There’s also insufficient evidence of what antibody levels reveal about a pet’s ability to actually fight off infection.

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