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Vaccines and your pet: What you need to know

Last year, the national debate surrounding vaccines in humans reached a boiling point when an outbreak of measles occurred at Disneyland. Though studies, experts, and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have shown there is no link between childhood vaccines and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), some parents still avoid vaccinations because they think they’re protecting their children.

Such misconceptions are also impacting pets, as pet owners decline to vaccinate even against serious diseases like rabies.

Richard Ford, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DACVPM (Hon.), emeritus professor of medicine at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has lectured about vaccines to over 50,000 veterinarians in the U.S. and Canada over the last eight years.

“Each audience I’ve talked to, a significant number of veterinarians have expressed concerns that clients are concerned about over-vaccination of pets—dogs as well as cats,” Ford says. “Unfortunately, that translates to decreased compliance among dog and cat owners at least with regard to vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Ford says the most important vaccine for pets is rabies. Vaccinating dogs and cats against rabies is required by law in most U.S. states, and is crucial in preventing the spread of a fatal disease that is transmissible to humans.

If an unvaccinated dog or cat is scratched or bitten by a wild animal, it is almost always euthanized or quarantined for six months. Yet compliance, particularly with cat owners, is down, and rabies cases are up—the CDC reported a 10.12 percent increase in incidences of feline rabies from 2013 to 2014 (the most recent data).

“There’s a public health issue if we don’t pay attention to rabies vaccination of cats and dogs,” Ford says.

A member of the AAHA Canine Vaccination Task Force, Ford helped develop the 2011 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. These guidelines provide a comprehensive review of available core (vaccines all dogs should have) and noncore (vaccines given based on lifestyle and geographic location) vaccines as well as recommendations for their administration.

In addition to rabies, other core vaccines for dogs protect against:

  • Canine distemper, an incurable disease that can lead to seizures and death
  • Canine parvovirus, which causes severe intestinal or cardiac issues that can lead to death

Dogs should also receive canine adenovirus (CAV-2), the vaccine that prevents infectious hepatitis, Ford says.

Cats need a core vaccination against rabies, as well as:

  • Feline panleukopenia, a life-threatening virus
  • Feline calicivirus, a respiratory disease
  • Feline herpesvirus, a highly contagious virus that causes upper respiratory infections

Ford recommends kittens also be vaccinated against feline leukemia virus, the cause of severe immune suppression and death in cats.

“The core vaccines are the really, really important ones because the diseases that are prevented by the core vaccines are really serious diseases and they can either cause serious injury or death … or, in the case of rabies, are transmissible to humans,” Ford says.

While he stresses the need for core vaccinations, Ford says pet owners can have valid concerns about some issues, such as feline injection-site sarcomas (FISS), rare cancerous tumors that occur after injections.

Though the cause of these tumors is still inconclusive, Ford believes vaccines for cats that contain a chemical agent called “adjuvant,” which is added to “killed” vaccines to elicit an immune response at the injection site, should be avoided in favor of nonadjuvanted vaccines.

According to the 2013 American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel Report, “Both adjuvanted and non-adjuvanted vaccines induce local inflammation, although the magnitude and type of inflammation varies among vaccines, adjuvants and individual cats. However, some authors recommend considering non-adjuvanted vaccines to try to reduce local inflammation.”

On the canine side, Ford says owners of small dogs (less than 20 pounds) might want to request having only the core vaccines given in one visit to prevent the rare possibility of swelling in the face or ears, or anaphylactic shock.

“I think it’s appropriate to inquire if you are having a very small breed or tiny, young animal vaccinated, ‘Are there any vaccines I could delay until a later time?’ And certainly in the cat, I think it is important if people ask, ‘Are you using adjuvanted or killed vaccines?’”

Ford says veterinarians may also recommend other noncore vaccines depending on where you live. For instance, there is a high risk for Lyme disease in both dogs and humans in New England, so many veterinarians there will administer it as a core vaccine.

The bottom line: Talk to your AAHA-accredited veterinarian about the best ways to keep your dogs and cats healthy and stay current on important vaccinations.

“The price of vaccination, especially for the core vaccines, is the best value for your veterinary dollar,” Ford says. “There’s no question about it.”

Award-winning pet writer Jen Reeder likes to travel with her dog, so she keeps his up-to-date vaccination records in the glove compartment of her car in case a hotel, boarding facility or groomer requires them.

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