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A Sad Lesson in Why We Should Never View Vaccines as Harmless

A Sad Lesson in Why We Should Never View Vaccines as Harmless

Story at-a-glance -

  • A beloved family cat in Colorado is dying of a type of cancer very likely caused by a vaccine. Hozart, who belongs to the Gorden family of Colorado Springs, has developed vaccine-associated sarcoma (VAS), probably as the result of a feline leukemia vaccination.
  • The Gordens have spent thousands of dollars to save their pet, but things don’t look good for Hozart. The family wishes they had been told the risks vs. benefits of the vaccines he was given. They had no idea the FeLV vaccine is linked to cancerous tumors in cats. Nor did they know indoor-only cats like Hozart have no need for the vaccine.
  • Rabies vaccines (which Hozart was given at the same time) have also been linked to VAS in cats, but since those vaccines are required by law, our recommendation is to never give more than one vaccine at the same time.
  • Whether your pet is a cat or a dog, it’s important to learn about veterinary vaccines – which are core, which are non-core, which vaccines your pet truly needs -- and how often.
  • Dr. Deborah Germeroth, a veterinarian in Colorado Springs puts it this way: "There's no cookie-cutter recipe for animal vaccines, but you don't need everything under the sun," Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

By Dr. Becker

In a very sad story out of Colorado Springs, CO, a much loved family cat is dying of a type of cancer called vaccine-associated sarcoma (VAS).

The kitty, named Hozart, has a large, open tumor on his back near his tail, which is exactly the spot where three “routine” vaccines were injected years ago.

The vaccinations Hozart received were for distemper, the feline leukemia virus, and rabies. Two of the three, the rabies and feline leukemia (FeLV) vaccines, are most commonly associated with injection site tumors in cats.

"I was never told of any risks or anything like that."

Hozart’s family, Alyssa Gorden and her dad Anthony, say their cat’s visit to the vet was routine. The “Oh, your cat needs some vaccines” statement was made casually, as though it was nothing more harmful than checking his weight or temperature. Not only do all vaccines, core and non-core, carry the risk of adverse reactions, but non-core vaccines can be especially problematic.

The FeLV vaccine is a non-core vaccine. It should never be given ‘just because.’ The potential for individual exposure is what should decide whether vaccination is appropriate.

Alyssa and her father have since learned that:

  • The FeLV vaccine isn’t even necessary for indoor-only cats
  • It carries one of the highest risks of any animal vaccine for creating cancerous tumors

According to Dr. Deborah Germeroth of High Country Veterinary Hospital in Colorado Springs, "It seems to be the vaccine most likely to induce sarcomas." Germeroth believes pet owners should give their animal the least vaccines necessary for its lifestyle. She said she warns owners of the risks involved. "There's no cookie-cutter recipe for animal vaccines, but you don't need everything under the sun," said Germeroth. "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should."

From the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine:

We recommend vaccination of FeLV-negative cats allowed to go outdoors or cats having direct contact with other cats of unknown FeLV status. Vaccination is most likely to be useful in kittens and young adult cats, because acquired resistance to infection develops beyond 16 weeks of age. As of 2006, the AAFP recommends primary vaccination of all kittens for FeLV, but the decision to administer booster vaccines is based on risk assessment. Vaccination is not recommended for FeLV-positive cats and indoor cats with no likelihood of exposure to FeLV.

Because of concerns relating to sarcoma formation following administration of killed, adjuvanted vaccines, we currently stock and suggest the use of the recombinant transdermal FeLV vaccine. This vaccine does not produce chronic inflammatory reactions, which are a prerequisite for sarcoma induction.

The vaccine-associated sarcoma task force recommends FeLV vaccines be injected in the left rear leg, as far from the body as possible. This is so the leg can be amputated as a treatment option in the event an injection site tumor develops.

Are Rabies Vaccines for Cats Also Unsafe?

The rabies vaccine is also associated with vaccine-associated sarcomas in kitties.

Since there are both 1-year and 3-year rabies vaccines, it would seem to make sense to give cats the 3-year variety. However, Dr. Ronald Schultz, a pioneer and expert in the field of veterinary vaccines, believes it’s preferable to give the non-adjuvanted 1-year vaccine over the 3-year vaccine, because the 3-year variety contains adjuvants. Adjuvanted rabies vaccines are known to cause more VAS.

According to Dr. Schultz, in tests of the two products, the non-adjuvanted 1-year vaccine created no inflammatory response at the injection site (inflammation is a marker for tumor development). So even in genetically predisposed kitties, it is assumed the non-adjuvanted product, even given yearly, is less risky than the adjuvanted vaccine.

The vaccine-associated sarcoma task force recommends rabies vaccines be given to cats in the right rear leg, as much distance from the body as possible, so that amputation can be considered as a treatment option should VAS develop.

Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020Click here to find out Dr. Becker's 20 Pet Tips for a Healthy 2020

Guidelines for Vaccinating Your Cat

According to the 2006 American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Vaccine Advisory Panel Report, the goal of vaccination is to:

  • Vaccinate the greatest number of cats in the population at risk.
  • Vaccinate each cat no more frequently than necessary.
  • Vaccinate each cat only against infectious agents to which it has a realistic risk of exposure, infection and subsequent development of disease.
  • Vaccinate a cat only when the potential benefits of the procedure outweigh the potential risks.
  • Vaccinate appropriately to protect public health.

My recommendations are more comprehensive:

  • If your cat lives entirely indoors, I highly recommend weighing vaccination risks vs. benefits. If she never leaves your home, consider foregoing vaccinations altogether. The risk of not vaccinating is that if your kitty is ever accidentally exposed to disease, her immune system will be naïve from having lived entirely indoors, and she could become very sick or die.
  • Generally speaking, however, for careful pet owners, a cat’s indoor-only lifestyle virtually eliminates her risk of exposure to infectious diseases. It is my belief over-vaccination is one of the primary reasons the general health of housecats is deteriorating. Keep unvaccinated indoor cats from interacting with any other cats and your pet’s risk is virtually none.

  • When it comes to vaccinating cats that have disease exposure, I urge you to seek out a holistic or integrative vet to care for your cat. Non-traditional veterinarians are generally more willing to proceed very cautiously in the realm of re-vaccinations.
  • Ask for a vaccine titer test. This test will measure your cat’s immunological protection against diseases for which he was vaccinated during his first year of life (his ‘kitten shots’). You can’t add immunity to an already immune pet, so don’t keep vaccinating.
  • If your pet needs a booster of a certain vaccine or a vaccine he’s never received, make sure the following criteria applies for each vaccine your pet is subjected to:
    • It is for a potentially fatal disease (this eliminates many on the list immediately).
    • Your cat has the opportunity to be exposed to the disease (indoor cats have little to no exposure).
    • The vaccine is considered both effective and safe.
  • If your cat does need a vaccine, ask your holistic vet to provide a homeopathic detox remedy called Thuja, which will help neutralize the effects of all vaccines other than the rabies vaccine.
  • Rabies vaccines are required by law. Dr. Schultz recommends the 1-year non-adjuvanted vaccine for cats (not dogs), and ask your holistic vet about the homeopathic rabies vaccine detoxifier called Lyssin. If your pet is a kitten, ask to have the rabies vaccine given after four months of age, preferably closer to six months, to reduce the potential for a reaction.
  • Do not vaccinate your cat or any pet if he has had a serious vaccine reaction.
  • Avoid veterinary practices promoting annual or more frequent re-vaccinations. Try not to patronize any boarding facility, groomer, training facility or other animal care service that requires you to vaccinate your precious kitty more than necessary. Well-educated people in the pet community will accept titer test results in lieu of proof of vaccination.

Hozart’s Future

The Gordens have spent thousands of dollars trying to save their beloved cat, but things don’t look good. Alyssa is forced to face the prospect of losing the pet who has been her best friend for most of her life.

Anthony Gorden says he has nothing against vaccines, but wishes he’d been given the information he needed to weigh the risks and benefits of allowing Hozart to be given those vaccinations. “I think everybody needs to be made aware of it," he said. “I think everybody should have a choice."

+ Sources and References
  • KRDO.com May 19, 2012