The Anti-Vaccine Movement Puts Pets at Risk Too

The anti-vaccination movement has spread to pets, and veterinarians are concerned about what that means for the future of animal health. Given that preventable diseases like rabies pose a serious dangerous anyone around the afflicted animal, vaccine denial flies in the face of established veterinary medicine, animal welfare and community health.

Many of the arguments coming from the human anti-vaccination movement are spilling over to pets: Primarily, people are claiming to be afraid of vaccine injury, a very rare side effect of some vaccinations that occurs in an extreme minority of animals. Some guardians also worry about behavioral changes, neurological problems or other issues — like feline vaccine-associated sarcoma — so they want to skip vaccines altogether, adjust the vaccine schedule or use “titering” in lieu of complete vaccination.

If you haven’t heard of titering before, you haven’t been frequenting anti-vaxx boards on the internet. Here’s how it works: Titering involves taking a small blood sample and testing it for antibodies, a not uncommon practice. Sometimes it’s done to determine if a vaccine was effective, or if someone was exposed to a specific antigen. Sometimes the procedure is required for international travel or certain kinds of work permits — for instance, teachers and childcare providers may be asked to submit titers to prove that they were successfully vaccinated against an infectious disease.

But in the vaccine denier landscape, titering is used to avoid vaccines — the argument goes that pets can be titered every year to determine if their initial vaccines wore off. If not, pet guardians contend that they are adequately protected.

Titering is much more expensive and invasive than simply getting a booster shot. Moreover, while it tells you if a pet has antibodies, it doesn’t indicate whether the pet has cell-mediated immunity. A cat’s titer might be negative, for example, when she actually does have immunity. And even if a dog’s titer reads positive, he could still lack cell-mediated immunity and risk getting sick if exposed to a given virus.

Here’s the problem: As in humans, animals rely on herd immunity, and because many animals go outside and interact with stray animals or pets with unknown vaccination status — in addition to wild animals that carry disease — they’re at a big risk if they aren’t vaccinated. Rabies may be infamous — and the subject of required vaccinations for certain animals in some places — but distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, feline calicivirus, bordetella, feline leukemia virus and feline herpesvirus can all be dangerous for pets.

Veterinarians and animal welfare experts have invested considerable energy in developing vaccine guidelines, which vary depending on the species and an animal’s lifestyle. They want to help people avoid unnecessary trips to the vet, while still ensuring that their animals are protected. Most commonly, vets will offer a series of shots that starts at about six to eight weeks of age and continues through adulthood. Failure to keep up with vaccines could result in serious, potentially life-threatening illness, and the spread of infection in the community.

If you have a dog, the University of California, Davis, a world leader in veterinary care, recommends these core vaccines: canine parvovirus (CPV), canine distemper virus (CDV), canine adenovirus (CAV) and rabies. Residents of areas where leptospirosis is endemic, like California, should also get this vaccine. It’s important to complete the entire series of vaccines to ensure animals are completely covered.

There are also some recommendations for non-core vaccines, which depend on where you live, your dog’s activity level and lifestyle, whether you travel and other factors that you can discuss with your veterinarian. Vaccines for canine parainfluenza virus (CPiV), canine influenza virus H3N8, canine influenza virus H3N2 distemper-measles combination vaccine, Bordetella bronchiseptica and Borrelia burgdorferi are available. Be aware that these vaccines can be less effective, but they are still better than no protection at all.

If you have a cat, a similar set of core vaccines are available: feline herpesvirus 1 (FHV1), feline calicivirus (FCV), feline panleukopenia virus (FPV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and rabies. It should be noted that while many “vaccine injury” claims can’t be substantiated, cats actually do run a risk of vaccine-associated sarcomas, a type of malignant soft-tissue growth at the vaccine site.

It’s important to be aware that this is actually just a subtype of an injection sarcoma: Injections of any material can carry a slightly risk of contributing to a malignancy years in the future, and they are very rare. Just in case, if you notice a lump on your cat’s body, get the vet to check it out.

The American Veterinary Medical Association  conducted exhaustive research into this issue to develop vaccination guidelines for cats that balance sarcoma risk against concerns about vaccine-preventable disease. They advise consulting with your vet to develop an effective vaccine schedule that’s best for your cat. And some of these core vaccines may not be necessary: For example, if you have an indoor kitty, FELV risks are low, and your vet may recommend skipping that vaccine.

You can also access vaccines for feline immunodeficiency virus, Chlamydia felis and Bordetella bronchiseptica. These vaccines generally aren’t recommended for individual pets, and they’re more common in group housing situations where there’s a risk that these diseases could spread.

Veterinary professionals want your pets to be healthy, and in conversations about vaccines, it’s a good idea to provide as much information as possible about your pet, and her lifestyle, so they can make informed recommendations. As with human vaccination, profit margins on veterinary vaccines are pretty low — your vet isn’t trying to gouge you, but rather to protect your pet.

If you’re concerned about the spread of anti-vaccination to pets as well as people, there are some steps you can take. Ask your doggy daycare or other animal care facility about their vaccine policy, if it’s not posted or provided with signup information. If you use a dog park or similar play space, ask for vaccine policies to be clearly posted and enforced in the interest of protecting the community. Discuss this issue with your vet, too.

Don’t be afraid to ask family and friends about whether they’re vaccinating — especially if you bring your animals to their houses, or vice versa. If they complain about cost, connect them with a free or low-cost vaccine clinic in your area; animal shelters often perform this service periodically. And if they bring up concerns about vaccine injury, point them in the direction of some reassuring research, like this detailed overview of canine vaccination.

When seeking out or discussing research, be sensitive to where it’s coming from. Look for a solid source like a veterinary college or association that provides third-party peer-reviewed research and information, and check the qualifications and affiliations of the people involved. Reputable research will also note financial conflicts, like whether someone receives drug company funding.

Be wary of language like ”over-vaccination or ”pet autism” – there’s no link between autism and vaccines, as well as encouragements to use titers to replace vaccines. Be aware that anti-vaccination sentiments are often wrapped up in rhetoric about “natural” or “holistic” pet care, describing vaccines as “dangerous.”

Pet health is too important to put in jeopardy simply due to bad science.

Photo credit: NAIT Animal Health Technology


Hannah A
Hannah A19 days ago

Thank you for sharing

KimJ M
KimJ Mabout a year ago

Petition already signed

KimJ M
KimJ Mabout a year ago


Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

Oh of course, I hadnt even considered that side of things.. anti vaxxers irritate me no end. Fools putting others in danger

Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

I have no idea why but lately at the end of a story, if I go to sign the petition thats fearured below the story - it plays the video underneath. I cant sign.. i give up!

Angela K
Angela Kabout a year ago

Petition already signed & shared

Pietro Maiorana
Pietro Maioranaabout a year ago

Il gatto non ha proprio una bella espressione. Paura del dottore??

Sharon R
Past Member about a year ago

Thank you for the informative article.

Celine Russo
Celine Russoabout a year ago

So... they prefer to possibly see their pet suffer from a preventable disease than seeing them with lumps or paying "too much"?

Chrissie R
Chrissie Rabout a year ago

Ask a veterinarian who sees animals suffering and dying EVERY DAY from vaccine preventable diseases..... My experience would change your mind about the necessity of vaccinations.