Anti-vaxxing, pets and the community’s fears

The idea and concept that preventative vaccinations may be doing more harm than good is not a thought which is too uncommon amongst humans. More recently, some of those reservations and fears have crept into the animal community – namely in the pet world – with some claiming that vaccinations cause pets to become more vulnerable to stronger and deadlier diseases.

One of the main fears in the human anti-vaxx community has transcended to pet parents; the worry that dogs who are vaccinated can develop autism. However, the human autism-vaccine link has been disproven a number of times since it was first discussed in 1998 and the doctor who published the original study was consequently struck off and had his research retracted. Furthermore, the developmental disorder which can be tricky enough to diagnose in people is unconfirmed and believed to be unlikely to occur in non-human animals, let alone canines. While some vets agree that a number of dogs may display atypical, repetitive behaviours akin to autistic characteristics, these behavioural symptoms can also be seen in dogs suffering with other ailments such as anxiety or pain.

Outside of conditions, which are currently not medically proven to exist at all in animals, the anti-vaxx community also shares and spreads the fear that vaccinating pets too often – if at all – can lead to them developing allergies, arthritis, parvovirus, leukemia and cancer occuring at the point of vaccination. Katherine Polak, vet at Four Paws says, “Much of the change in attitude is the result of misinformation and spillover of vaccination controversy from the human to veterinary health field.” While some pet owners have abstained from injecting their pets at all, others have made the decision to simply decrease the frequency of which they vaccinate their pets to reduce the perceived risk.

Contradictorily, and something that is commonly known in the vet industry, the illnesses feared by the anti-vaxx community are at times the very same illnesses many vaccines are protecting against. As the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) warns, “more than 11 million pets could die prematurely in the next decade from devastating preventable illnesses such as parvovirus, feline leukaemia and certain forms of cancer because their owners are failing to vaccinate or neuter them.”

Many of the pioneers and figureheads of the anti-vaxx community are people with little to no veterinary training.

One thing worth noting is that apart from a handful of homeopathic and holistic vets, many of the pioneers and figureheads of the anti-vaxx community are people with little to no veterinary training. One of the main people spreading the word on the perceived dangers of pet vaccination in the UK is Stan Rawlinson, also known as the dog listener, who is a behaviourist and obedience trainer.

On his blog, he argues that in humans, vaccinations against illnesses like MMR are said to have a full, long-lasting antibody response after one or two doses, insinuating a lack of need to have the injection more than once. Then, in an argument against annual jabs, he goes on to state that the BVA advises that pet owners give their pets main core vaccines every three to four years.

However, this quite clearly ignores the fact that there are different kinds of vaccinations aimed to help combat the development of different kinds of pet illnesses. As Dr Donal Murphy, veterinary surgeon and head of technical and regulatory affairs at the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) states that for dogs, “the ‘core’ canine UK vaccines, based on potential morbidity and mortality, are CDV, CPV and CAV, which cause canine distemper, parvovirus infection and infectious canine hepatitis respectively.” Other vaccines will be determined by a vet based on a dog’s “geographical location, local environment or lifestyle”, as these factors may make them susceptible to different infections. Dr Donal also goes on to say that it “makes good sense” to vaccinate cats to protect them from a range of viruses and diseases including cat flu, respiratory disease, feline infectious enteritis and the feline leukaemia virus. Rabbits, on the other hand, require vaccines to prevent the development of myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease.

‘It’s really important that whatever advice given by anybody is science-based and not anecdote.’

As well as coming from people outside of the vet industry, much of the information that comes up first in a search engine when looking at arguments in favour of not vaccinating pets tends to be anecdotal. Many claim that their pets have remained healthy despite not visiting a vet and are under the impression that the lack of vaccinations is the catalyst behind why their pet remains well. Describing the claims and information available as being “of variable quality”, PDSA’s senior vet Sean Wensley explains, “The great risk is we rest on our laurels.” He continues, “What happens is the disease hasn’t gone away so if we stop vaccinating then you reduce that population-level protection and what was always there, now it does have a strong chance of going on to infecting others.” BVA’s senior vice president Gudrun Ravetz adds, “It’s really important that whatever advice given by anybody is science-based and not anecdote.”

‘Vaccination has been a victim of its own success.’

American writer John Clifton, described as a ‘prominent advocate for owner involvement in the health of their pets’ and author of the book Stop the Shots! claims that his pet has not suffered any illness despite not being vaccinated for years. His Australian Terrier is in his ninth year of remission from lymphoma and has not been vaccinated since 2000. While this may be going well for him and his pooch, it could be that other factors are at play. This somewhat misinformed confidence in the lack of injections could be attributed to the herd immunity concept, the idea that an unvaccinated pet could remain relatively healthy and well because the majority of the pets around it will have been vaccinated against common diseases, thus, making it near-impossible for the pet to catch a disease as due to the success of the veterinary industry, it has been medically eradicated or controlled in its local environment and is not an active threat. As Dr Donal muses, “Perhaps to some extent vaccination has been a victim of its own success.”

‘As soon as enough pet owners stop vaccinating their pets, herd immunity wanes, and they effectively put the entire population at risk.’

Katherine Polak explains, “Herd immunity refers to the indirect protection of an individual from disease when a large proportion of the surrounding population is protected.” She adds, “The problem with this model is that as soon as enough pet owners stop vaccinating their pets, herd immunity wanes, and they effectively put the entire population at risk.” This has been recorded recently, as Katherine goes on to say, “A recent example involves cats in Melbourne, Australia where feline parvovirus, a disease largely thought to be eradicated through vaccination, has re-emerged killing hundreds of vulnerable cats and kittens.” The herd immunity heavily relies on the stability of the community as once a new pet is introduced, that can introduce a new threat as Dr Donal points out the “cat belonging to the new family in the street, or the stray dog in the park” can all pose a potential risk.

On the other hand, some pet owners are willing to allow their pets to get sick under the belief that it will help strengthen their immune system. Katherine Polak says, “Some discussion in the anti-vaxx community relies on natural exposure to disease to evoke an immune response (protection). This is a very dangerous game to play however as vaccines are far safer than contracting actual disease.”

For those who opt to lessen the number of injections their pets have, questioning why pets go for regular injections while humans will only have one for a specific illness not only ignores the biological differences between humans and animals but also ignores the fact that different vaccines will be administered dependent on certain factors. A vet will only recommend a vaccine for a particular illness according to its current and active threat to a pet and also, a vet will not administer a vaccine if a pet is shown to still be protected from an illness during its yearly health check. A pet’s age and overall health will also be taken into account. As BVA’s Gudrun Ravetz says, “It’s not a blanket timing across the board.” She also advises that her veterinary colleagues keep on top of research and developments, naming the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) as a relevant source for information.

While no veterinary professional will ignore or deny the potential risk that vaccines – or any other form of medication – it is acknowledged that the benefit and protect provided by a vaccine greatly outweighs any risks. Also, any vaccines available to use in the UK are approved to gain a Marketing Authorisation (MA) by independent regulators, which are the VMD in UK and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the EU. With Gudrun stating that “ultimately, vaccination has saved lives”, Dr Donal rounds off this sentiment saying, “Vaccines are the cornerstone of any preventative medicine approach to good health and welfare.”

This was originally published in the March 2018 print edition of Pet Gazette

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