The Vaccination Debate – Should Companion Animals Be Vaccinated?
Vaccination is defined as the administration of antigenic material (a vaccine) to stimulate an animal’s immune system to develop adaptive immunity to a particular or combination of pathogens. The very first vaccine was developed in 1796, against smallpox in humans, by British doctor Edward Jenner.
Over the years, the effectiveness of vaccines has been widely studied and verified, and vaccinating has been considered the most effective method of preventing infectious diseases. Just like humans, animals suffer from a wide range of infectious diseases, and with the advancement of veterinary medicine it became of vital importance that they should also be protected against them. Creating immunity to certain diseases in animals became a priority, and as a result animal vaccinations were introduced.
THE VACCINATION CONTROVERSY
As a veterinarian, I have recently observed an increase in negativity and fear among clients about pet vaccinations, and about the perceived dangerous effects of over-vaccinating animals; the vaccination debate is also rife on the internet. There seems to be a lot of confusion among vets and pet guardians over this subject. I therefore felt it was important to examine the main concerns and evaluate them to see if there is any real justification for this.
The history of animal vaccinations is quite confusing. The lack of clarity – and not enough research into the correlations and adverse reactions – is highly disconcerting. When animal vaccinations were first developed, they were primarily against four killer diseases, but in recent years the list of diseases has increased dramatically. Animal vaccine manufacturing is now a multibillion-dollar industry.
But do we really need so many vaccines? There is no doubt that vaccine manufacturers started off with honourable intentions, responding to the common health epidemics, but now it seems as if there is a market for new vaccines to fight milder diseases that can easily be treated.
Holistic veterinarian Jean Dodds says: ‘It is the vets’ fault, really.’ She, along with many other vets, believes that we have stopped practising medicine and started focusing more on vaccines and pills. Over time, vaccines became a major chunk of any conventional veterinarian’s income and in the 1970s the tradition of annual revaccinations was born. What most pet owners find odd is the fact that while they themselves are only vaccinated rarely, their pets are vaccinated every year. It is a very valid question. Are annual boosters really necessary, or is it a trap to make money?
According to the vets, this vaccination protocol ensured that pets were brought in to be checked annually. If boosters were not compulsory, they argued, most owners would just ignore the annual checks, which are vital to an animal’s wellbeing. I can see their point of view, but if a responsible pet guardian is willing to bring their pet in every year for an annual health check, should we insist on the annual booster?
THE ANNUAL BOOSTER: ESSENTIAL FOR HEALTH OR HARMFUL?
Most conventional vets seem to be confused about the vaccination schedule, and the differences between the guidelines set by the Vaccination Guidelines Group (VGG) of the WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association), and what is mentioned in the data sheet provided by the pharmaceutical companies who produce the vaccines. The questions are: ‘Are vaccines really causing enough adverse reactions that one should take over-vaccination so seriously?’ What is the ideal protocol? How often is safe and enough?
The majority of vets tend to follow the data sheet as this protects them from any litigation and the onus is then on the vaccine companies. The pet guardians, on the other hand, are more concerned with the adverse effects of vaccinating their pets, the cost of vaccinations and, most importantly, over-vaccinating.
Are the adverse reactions only those listed in the vaccine manufacturer’s data sheet or is there more to it? Are the vaccinations actually making the pets ill? If so, do we have proof? These are important questions that we need to address.
Several holistic vets were interviewed by the UK’s Dogs Naturally magazine in June 2012 and most of them felt that vaccines did more harm than good. Some felt that most of the diseases that have an immunological basis can be triggered by vaccinating.
Allergies, atopy, asthma, autoimmune diseases, pancreatitis, cardiomyopathy, epilepsy, cancers like lymphoma, kidney failure, anal gland problems, cystitis, colitis and even behavioural problems, to name just a few, have all been related to ‘vaccinosis’ (a term coined by the late 19th-century British homeopath J. Compton-Burnett to describe subtle chronic conditions triggered by vaccinations).
In horses, colic, laminitis and anorexia have all been connected to recent vaccinations. Most of the vets interviewed for the magazine believed that their observations were not just anecdotal and that it was happening too often to be dismissed as a coincidence.
Vaccine-related fibrosarcomas in cats are a well-documented adverse reaction, and so is the fact that rabies vaccines can cause terminal cancer in cats. Vaccinating cats with the feline leukemia vaccine can also predispose them to cancer, according to many holistic vets.
When the immune system is compromised, all sorts of germs can attack from all sides. It is very difficult, therefore, to prove that it is the vaccine that caused the subsequent disease. From her own research, vet Jean Dodds found enough evidence to link the onset of polyneuropathies (nerve disorders), muscular atrophy (deterioration of muscle), incoordination and seizures to distemper, parvovirus and rabies vaccinations. She also established a link between vaccinating for Lyme disease and consequent kidney and liver failure. Similarly, in cats, a suspicious link still exists between using the feline distemper vaccine in a combo vaccine and the increased incidence of hyperthyroidism.
The important question here is: has any of this been taken seriously? Studies conducted in mice and human infants have shown that early vaccinations stimulate humoral immunity, which helps fight specific diseases but at the same time decreases cell-mediated immunity, which is necessary to fight cancer. This pattern can continue into an animal’s adult life, resulting in an increased risk of cancer development in old age.
In 1997, the first Veterinary Vaccines and Diagnostics symposium of some 500 vets, scientists, physicians, immunologists and epidemiologists convened at the University of Wisconsin, USA, and reached a landmark conclusion. The mixture of conventional and alternative experts agreed that vaccine boosters should not be given more than every three years. They also said that instead of annual vaccinations, annual blood tests/titer testing should be undertaken in the interim to confirm protection.
The WSAVA Vaccination Guidelines Group (VGG) was convened in 2006 with the task of producing global vaccination guidelines for dogs and cats that would consider international differences in economic and societal factors that impact on the keeping of these small companion animals. The guidelines were launched at the 2007 WSAVA Congress. Since then the VGG have convened in 2009 and in 2010. They looked into two major concepts regarding vaccinating companion animals:
Re-evaluation of vaccination practice and the importance of herd immunity. The VGG observed that even in developed countries, only 30–50 per cent of the pet animal population was vaccinated, and this was significantly less in developing nations. In small animal medicine, they felt that there had been a slow realization regarding the concept of ‘herd immunity’ – that vaccination of individual pet animals is important, not only to protect the individual, but to reduce the number of susceptible animals in the regional population, and thus the prevalence of disease.
Herd immunity with the core vaccines that provide a long (many years) DOI (duration of immunity) is highly dependent on the percentage of animals in the population vaccinated and not the number of vaccinations that occur annually. They concluded therefore that every effort should be made to vaccinate a higher percentage of cats and dogs with the core vaccines.
- Reduce the ‘vaccine load’ on individual animals in order to minimize the potential for adverse reactions to vaccine products. For that reason, the VGG prepared vaccination guidelines based on a rational analysis of the vaccine requirements for each pet, and the proposal that vaccines be considered ‘core’ (compulsory) and ‘non-core’ (optional) in nature.
Species diseases controlled by vaccines
According to the UK’s National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), companion animals can be vaccinated against several diseases:
Distemper, infectious canine hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, kennel cough (Bordetella bronchiseptica) and canine parainfluenza virus. Also, rabies for dogs going abroad as part of the Pet Travel scheme (PETS).
Feline infectious enteritis (or panleucopenia), feline leukaemia, chlamydia, cat ‘flu’ (feline herpes virus and feline calcivirus). Also rabies for cats going abroad as part of the Pet Travel scheme (PETS).
Equine herpes virus 1, influenza, tetanus, viral arteritis. Also rabies (not routinely used in the UK).
Myxomatosis, viral haemorrhagic disease.
Most of the above diseases, except rabies, are endemic in the UK, and most are also killer diseases in which death occurs despite veterinary treatment. These diseases also cause unnecessary suffering, and sometimes irreparable damage, to affected animals that could easily have been prevented by responsible vaccination by the owners.
Natural immunity can develop without vaccination but for this to happen an animal must first encounter the disease and then survive it. Due to the potentially life-threatening nature of the above diseases, is it worth taking the risk?
The most important message of the VGG is therefore encapsulated in the following statement: ‘We should aim to vaccinate every animal with core vaccines, and to vaccinate each individual less frequently by only giving non-core vaccines that are necessary for that animal.’
The WSAVA vaccination guidelines state:
‘Core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 12-month booster injection following the puppy/kitten series, because the duration of immunity (DOI) is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet. In order to ensure the existence of the duration of immunity, titer testing may be used.’
RONALD D SCHULTZ, PH.D, PROFESSOR AND CHAIRMAN, DEPT. OF PATHOBIOLOGICAL SCIENCES, SCHOOL OF VETERINARY MEDICINE, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN, MEMBER OF WSAVA AND AAHA VACCINE GUIDELINE GROUPS
‘Only one dose of the modified canine “core” vaccine (against CDV*, CAV-2 and CPV-2) or modified live feline “core” vaccine (against FPV, FCV and FHV), when administered at 16 weeks or older, will provide long-lasting (many years to a lifetime) immunity in a very high percentage of animals.’
SCHULTZ 1998, SCHULTZ 2000 AND SCHULTZ 2006
*CDV refers to canine distemper virus, CAV to canine adeno virus, CPV to canine parvovirus, FPV to feline panleukopaenia/parvovirus, FCV to feline corona virus and FHV to feline herpes virus.
The reason why it is necessary to vaccinate again at 14–16 weeks is because before this period, in most puppies and kittens, there are circulating maternal antibodies (immunity passed on by the mother) that can prevent the vaccine from working. So it would be good practice to give the first vaccination at 10 weeks or older and the second at 14 weeks.
Fortunately, this is filtering into practice now and many veterinarians give core vaccines as a puppy/kitten course, a full annual booster of core vaccines and then do not give them again until the third year. The leptospirosis vaccine is still given yearly, mainly because the disease is zoonotic (it can spread to humans) and also because not much information is available to find out if there is a risk of the disease in the area or if the dog in question is at risk.
Toy breed dogs are more prone to adverse anaphylactic reactions after the administration of the leptospirosis vaccine, so unless the dog is at a very high risk of exposure it is best avoided. The kennel cough vaccine is very much optional, according to the WSAVA, and certainly not compulsory. In cats the feline leukemia vaccine is not a core vaccine but it should be given to high-risk groups such as outdoor cats who are more likely to get into fights and become infected by the virus.
Some holistic vets recommend ‘nosodes’ instead of or after vaccinations. These are a potentised homeopathic remedy prepared from diseased tissue or from an infected discharge. They may have a role as an alternative to orthodox vaccines, but at present there is no scientific evidence that they offer the same protection as the conventional vaccines.
For owners who are totally opposed to the idea of annual vaccinations, it is good practice to at least administer nosodes and then titers can be run following the nosode administration to evaluate whether it was effective in stimulating the immune system.
There is no doubt that there is a controversy right now on companion animal vaccinations and that a lot of vets and the general public are concerning themselves about vaccine protocols. Unfortunately, in spite of the concerted efforts of many vets, both holistic and conventional, and guidelines from the VGG, annual vaccinations are the norm, predominantly for financial and legal reasons.
Vets do not want to lose the money gained from vaccinating and are also scared of being sued if they advise against annual vaccines – insurance companies insist on them and so do pet travel schemes and kennels. The pet guardians find the annual vaccinations cheaper than titer testing.
They also worry about the insurers, boarding kennel regulations and compulsory travel requirements. Many pet guardians cannot wait to take their puppies for a walk or to puppy classes. They want them to have early vaccines from six weeks onwards and finish at 10 weeks, rather than keep the pups at home till they are 14–16 weeks old.
A paradigm shift is therefore required in the mentality of both pet guardians and vets. Pet guardians need to pick the right vet for their pet, and be willing to wait till their pup is older before taking them out.
The guidelines stated above are not compulsory and your veterinarian does not have to follow them – they just guide us to use vaccines efficiently. But the ultimate decision is down to the individual veterinarian. Vets therefore need to stop succumbing to financial and pharmaceutical company pressure and do what is in the best interests of the pet in their care.
Vaccine data sheets do specify that their vaccines should not be used in animals that are unhealthy/immunocompromised. This should be enough to waive vaccines in the elderly (seven to ten years or older, based on breed) and those animals who have chronic health problems. I discuss the options with my client and tailor them to suit their needs and that of the pet.
Hopefully, with the development of quicker and more economical titer testing kits, which are now available, blind vaccination will be replaced by ‘evidence-based boosters’. Only give a booster vaccine if there is a low antibody titer and the pet is at risk. Instead of calculating how much money can be made per animal by vaccinations, vets need to focus on encouraging age-appropriate regular pet health checks and educating guardians on how best to care for their pets in a holistic and realistic way.