Does vaccine hesitancy about humans translate to vaccine hesitancy about pets?

Vaccine-hesitant pet owners aren’t necessarily anti-vaxxers—sometimes they’re just pet owners who haven’t made up their minds yet because they’ve been listening to anti-vaxxers.

The World Health Organization defines vaccine hesitancy as a delay in acceptance of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services, and the organization declared vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten global health threats in 2019—and that was before COVID hit.

Anecdotal stories suggesting that the human anti-vax movement had negatively impacted companion animal vaccination compliance rates were floating around pre-COVID as well, but a 2021 joint study by US and Canadian researchers was the first to try and see if there was correlation.

NEWStat spoke with lead researcher Lori Kogan, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor of clinical sciences at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

Kogan noted that the study was done pre-COVID but not released until after the pandemic was in full swing, so didn’t include questions about COVID vaccine hesitancy, and told NEWStat that she mostly wanted to know if the anti-vax movement pertaining to mandatory vaccination in children had led to an increase in the number of pet owners declining or expressing concern about rabies and core vaccinations. 

And yes, the study found a positive correlation between locally organized anti-vax movements against mandatory vaccination for children and the number of vaccine-resistant or concerned clients.

The most common concerns mentioned by both cat and dog owners were beliefs that vaccinations are unnecessary, they can lead to chronic or severe illness, and cost.

The primary reasons given by dog owners for not vaccinating their pet include:

  • Feeling it wasn’t necessary (20%)
  • Too expensive (19%)
  • Hadn’t thought about it (11%)

For cat owners, they include:

  • Too expensive (21%)
  • The cat did not come into contact with other animals (19%)
  • Vaccines were not necessary (18%)

Kogan said the findings also indicate —perhaps to no surprise—that advances in communication technology are partly responsible: “People are more prone to hear incorrect or misleading information via social media.”  

And although her 2021 study wasn’t able to address how COVID vaccine hesitancy is affecting pet owners’ attitudes towards vaccinating their pets, Kogan said she just closed out a new study that does.

In the new study, “I asked veterinarians if they’d seen a change in the number of pet owners who were vaccine-hesitant after the COVID vaccine became available,” she said. “Quite a few said yes, they do see an increase in vaccine hesitancy among pet owners who [have reservations about] the COVID vaccine.”

“These [findings] look pretty similar,” Kogan added. 

She said she couldn’t really share any more than that because she still needs to analyze the data and write it up, but she added, “There does seem to be an increase in the number of pet owners who are vaccine-hesitant due to COVID.”

Find out more about pet vaccination protocols in the 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines and the 2020 AAHA/AAFP Feline Vaccination Guidelines.

Photo credit: © ilona75/iStock/Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

NEWStat Advancements & research