The Pros and Cons of Vaccinations

The practice of vaccinating ourselves, our children, and our animals to prevent disease is the subject of a great deal of debate.  Heated discussions arise over what to vaccinate with, when to vaccinate, who to vaccinate, and even whether to vaccinate at all.  Every side has strong arguments for why their way is the right way and can show statistics and tell horror stories to prove their point.  I am here to tell you that the bottom line is that there is no such thing as a risk free life.  Each one of us must make the decisions about who, what, when, where, how, and why to vaccinate ourselves, our children and our pets – and no matter what decision we make, there are risks involved.

In the past, veterinarians and clients alike demanded “standard protocols” like “Every pet should be vaccinated with every vaccine available for pets every year.”  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  A more intelligent plan would be to create a vaccination protocol that reflects the fact that every animal is an individual with individual needs and tolerances.  This is not really as complicated as it sounds.  Here are the factors that I use to evaluate my patients need for vaccines:

1)      Age:

a)      Young animals are protected by maternal antibodies in mothers milk as long as they are nursing.  If they are bottle fed, they are at risk for developing disease until their immune systems are exposed to enough virus particles to develop their own personal immunity.  Whether they get sick or not depends on numerous factors including nutrition, their own innate ability to respond to virus challenge, the number of viruses they are exposed to, and the potency of that virus.  The goal in creating a vaccine virus is to take street virus and alter it to be strong enough to stimulate a response while not being potent enough to create illness.  This is a delicate balance since statistically in any population there will be patients with stronger or weaker than average resistance to disease.

b)      Older animals have multiple challenges to their immune systems over the years which leave toxins imbedded in their bodies, as well as generalized weakening of all systems just from the normal wear and tear of living.  A healthy older animal that has been vaccinated multiple times in the past may not need any more vaccines.  There is typically little or no information available on how long many vaccines last beyond the tested period.  Running vaccine trials beyond a year or two is not only costly and depressing (remember to test a vaccine you must expose the patients to street virus and see how many of them get sick and/or die), but it is also impractical because the vaccines themselves are changing rapidly.  Vaccines from 10 years ago are pretty much obsolete now due to ongoing improvements in efficacy and safety.

2)      Previous vaccination history:

a)      How many times has this patient been exposed to this vaccine virus in the past, and on what schedule?  More is not necessarily better!  Some breeders have been known to vaccinate their animals weekly or every two weeks – this is over vaccination, and has been shown to cause a number of problems including blood thickening from immune system protein complexes that can damage internal organs like the kidneys, failure of the immune system to fight off bacterial or fungal infections because it is too busy fighting vaccine “infections”, and increased risk of vaccination reaction – including death.

b)      Note: It is my understanding that there has never been a documented case of rabies virus infection in the US in a pet vaccinated at least twice, as an adult, by a veterinarian.

3)       Reproductive status:

a)      Live virus vaccines are generally contraindicated in pregnant or breeding animals.  Please note that males who are in breeding programs can pass live vaccine virus to the females they are breeding.  Pregnant females should not be exposed to other animals that have been recently vaccinated with live virus vaccines.  (Killed virus vaccines cannot be passed accidentally from one animal to another).

4)      Lifestyle

a)      Likelihood of exposure to street virus:  Animals that are being shown or taken places where there are large numbers of other animals (parks, grooming parlors, shows, boarding facilities, day care facilities, shelters, etc) or where they will be touched by the public are at much higher risk for being exposed to street virus than animals that stay home in a restricted environment with few contacts to the outside world.

b)      Environment:  Animals kept in clean and sanitary environments are exposed to fewer diseases than those kept in dirty environments – not only because more pathogenic virus/bacteria/fungus can grow in filth but also because these environments often damage the patients immunity.  For example, the build up of ammonia in poorly cleaned and/or inadequately ventilated pens or cages damages the lungs making animals more susceptible to respiratory diseases.

c)      If an animals lifestyle changes, their vaccination plan should be re-evaluated in the light of the new risk level(s).

5)      Genetics:

a)      Is there a history in the family or the breed of being extra susceptible to a particular disease?  Is there a history in the family of having problems with any particular vaccine?  If so, this should be a factor in your decision about whether or not to vaccinate.  If you must vaccinate an animal that has had problems with vaccines before, that animal should be protected against reactions before, during, and after vaccinating by the use of antihistamines or homeopathic remedies.

6)      General Health Status:

a)      Most vaccines include a disclaimer stating that they should not be used in sick or debilitated animals.  I would expand this to include any condition that may be exacerbated by vaccinations.  This would include any chronic disease like kidney disease, skin disease, recurrent infections, diabetes, autoimmune disease, immunodeficiency, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, asthma, or allergies, and any inflammatory “-itis” type disease like arthritis, thyroiditis, hepatitis, endocarditis, or gastritis.

7)      Legal Requirements:

a)      In some areas the most life threatening risk is actually not from the disease, but rather from the authorities concerned with human health risks.  This particularly pertains to rabies vaccination.  A pet that bites someone may be more at risk of losing his or her life from rabies testing than s/he ever was at risk from rabies itself.  Government officials are often more concerned with rules and/or liability than logic and it would be unwise to put your pet at risk unnecessarily.

b)      Some states may require vaccinations in order to license an pet.  Occasionally the PTB will allow the veterinarian to certify (in writing) that specific animals should be exempt from specific vaccinations for medical reasons.  You should verify this (in writing, and get names) with the appropriate licensing agency.

If you have a lot of pets, I recommend putting together a spreadsheet to simplify evaluating the risk factors and appropriate vaccination schedule for every pet you keep so you can vaccinate accordingly.  I understand that for some people this may inspire a few moans and groans, but it doesn’t really need to be complicated.  Once you’ve practiced thinking of each animal as an individual, it’s a pretty simple process.

What is being vaccinated against?

  • Rabies: Of all animal diseases, rabies is probably the most feared. The rabies virus attacks the brain and is always fatal. Most pets are exposed to rabies by bites from wild animals, most common being skunks, bats, raccoons, and foxes. The disease can be transmitted to humans through the bite or scratch of an infected pet. Vaccination of all dogs and cats is the most effective means of control.
  • Canine Distemper: This highly contagious viral disease is found wherever dogs are found. It affects the respiratory and nervous system and is often fatal. Primary vaccination should begin at 6-12 weeks of age since dogs often contract the disease at an early age. The canine distemper virus is very resistant to cold and the majority of distemper cases in domestic dogs are seen in the fall and winter. In wild animals, since the juveniles are more susceptible to infection, the majority of cases are seen in the spring and summer, but cases are observed year round.
  • Canine Parvovirus (CPV): This contagious viral disease usually causes severe diarrhea and vomiting in dogs of all ages, but is especially deadly in puppies. Parvoviruses are not enveloped in fat the way many other viruses are, this makes parvoviruses especially hardy in the environment and difficult to disinfect away. A common way the virus enters the body is through the mouth as the puppy cleans itself or eats food off the ground or floor.
  • Canine Coronavirus (CCV): Coronavirus is highly contagious and can weaken dogs by causing severe diarrhea and vomiting. This disease is sometimes confused with parvovirus, and it is possible for the two diseases to occur simultaneously, in which symptoms are more severe.
  • Canine Parainfluenza: This viral respiratory disease is often partly responsible for “kennel cough” in dogs. Infection can be severe in young puppies. Parainfluenza protection is often included in distemper-parvo vaccines. This virus is usually transmitted by contact with the nasal secretions of infected dogs.
  • Canine Adenovirus Type 1 and Type 2: Canine Adenovirus Type 1 infection causes infectious hepatitis which may lead to severe kidney damage. Type 2 can be a complicating factor in kennel cough. Vaccines are available that protect against both types of adenovirus. The virus is found worldwide and is spread by body fluids including nasal discharge and urine.
  • Canine Leptospirosis: Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease carried by many wild animals. A dog can contract the disease from infected animals or drinking contaminated water. Yearly vaccination limits your dog’s chances of acquiring the disease. Symptoms may include experiences of sudden fever (103-105oF), depression, vomiting, loss of appetite, conjunctivitis, and generalized pain. Within 2 days of the onset of these primary symptoms, body temperature may drop suddenly and there may be a noticeable increase in thirst.
  • Canine Bordetella: Frequently involved in kennel cough complex, this bacterial infection may occur simultaneously with distemper, adenovirus type 2, parainfluenza, and other respiratory infections. It is common to have this vaccine required at many canine boarding facilities due to such high populations of dogs and the chance of infection. Most cases appear after contact with other dogs in kennels, grooming parlors and other places where dogs congregate. The incubation period is about one week.
  • Canine Borreliosis (Lyme Disease): Borreliosis, or Lyme Disease, is an infection caused by a bacteria which is spread primarily by the painless bite of an infected tick. Symptoms of Borreliosis in the dog include fever, lethargy, muscle stiffness, depression and lack of appetite. In more severe cases, lameness occurs as a result of severe musculoskeletal or arthritic type joint pain.
  • Canine/Feline Giadiasis: Giardiasis in dogs, cats, and humans is caused by a waterborne parasite called Giardia lambila. The parasite is found in untreated water such as puddles, creeks, and ponds. Symptoms include severe diarrhea, weight loss, fever, dehydration, and nausea.
  • Feline Panleukopenia: Feline Panleukopenia, sometimes called “feline distemper”, causes severe vomiting, diarrhea, and dehydration. It is the most widespread disease of cats and causes high death loss, especially among kittens. The disease is caused by a virus and is highly contagious. This virus is shed in all body secretions and excretions of affected animals. Recovered animals may shed virus for months. Fleas and other insects, especially flies, may play a role in transmission of the disease.
  • Feline Rhinotracheitis: Rhinotracheitis infection is a widespread respiratory disease caused by a virus. It is most severe in small kittens and can cause profuse discharge from the eyes and nose.  The most common mode of transmission appears to be contact with contaminated objects that an infected cat has touched or sneezed on including cages, food and water bowls, litter trays, pet owner’s clothing, and the pet owner’s hands.
  • Feline Calicivirus: Calicivirus infection causes a variety of symptoms including fever, excess salivation and mouth or tongue ulcers. It is usually less fatal than rhinotracheitis or panleukopenia. Calicivirus is spread through direct contact with the saliva, eye and nose discharges, and sometimes the feces, of an infected cat. FCV is resistant to many disinfectants and can survive outside the cat’s body for as long as 8 to 10 days, so it may be present in dishes, litter trays, and clothing, even after a thorough cleaning.  Many cats remain contagious for years, even though they may not show signs of disease.
  • Feline Pneumonitis: Respiratory infection with symptoms resembling feline viral rhinotracheitis. The disease is caused by the organism Chlamydia psittaci and can be complicated by associated bacterial infections. Signs of pneumonitis are usually limited to sneezing and a mild watering of the eyes.  The veterinarian diagnoses peneumonitis by observing the clinical signs.  A cat with a mild respiratory infection that has no fever and continues to eat is usually assumed to have pneumonitis.
  • Feline Leukemia: Feline Leukemia is a form of cancer in cats which is usually fatal. The disease, caused by a virus, can lead to tumor growth nearly anywhere in the body as well as a variety of other symptoms. Infected cats are unable to resist other diseases and may die from associated infections. Testing for the disease is recommended prior to initiating a vaccination program.
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV): The primary mode of transmission  for FIV is through bite wounds. Infected cats may appear normal for years. However, infection eventually leads to a state of immune deficiency that hinders the cat’s ability to protect itself against other infections. The same bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and fungi that may be found in the everyday environment–where they usually do not affect healthy animals–can cause severe illness in those with weakened immune systems. These secondary infections are responsible for many of the diseases associated with FIV. Antibody tests detect the presence of antibody in the blood of infected cats. Currently, there is no vaccine for this infection. A blood test does exist to screen for this, but there are still some conflictions as to whether it is entirely accurate.
  • Feline Infections Peritonitis (FIP): FIP is a disease caused by a coronavirus. The virus is spread by direct cat-to-cat contact or by contact with contaminated surfaces. There are two manifestations of the disease, wet and dry, and both have nonspecific symptoms such as intermittent inappetence, depression, rough hair coat, weight loss, and fever. There is no cure and the disease is considered fatal. There is no vaccine for this infection at this time.