Defamatory Pet Advice From Time Magazine

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

pet over vaccination

Story at-a-glance

  • A recent article in Time magazine discusses the so-called threat of “anti-vaxxer” pet parents
  • The article author, a veterinary vaccine advocate, conflates “anti-vaxxers” with pet parents concerned about the dangers of over-vaccinating their animal companions
  • It’s possible the bigger threat is actually veterinarians who can’t provide answers as to why pets need to be repeatedly vaccinated against the same diseases throughout their lives
  • Pet parents have a right to be concerned about a veterinary community disinterested in both the potential long-term effects of repeated vaccinations, and offering titer testing in lieu of automatic re-vaccinations
  • The goal of both veterinarians and pet parents should be to immunize companion animals against disease, thereby preventing the spread of infectious diseases and confirm enduring immunity through antibody titer tests

Recently an article ran in Time magazine titled "Some Anti-Vaxxers Aren't Getting Their Pets Vaccinated. Here's Why That's So Dangerous."1 What, exactly, is an "anti-vaxxer?"

It has become popular with veterinary vaccine advocates to refer to anyone who doesn't follow established pet vaccination guidelines as "anti-vaxxers," so it's impossible to know when reading this type of information how many people are refusing all vaccines and how many are refusing repetitive vaccines and/or vaccines against diseases their pets aren't at risk of acquiring.

In other words, people whose pets received the recommended puppy or kitten core vaccines and boosters at 1 year and now have their pets titered instead of automatically revaccinated, are called "anti-vaxxers" right along with people who refuse all vaccines, including puppy and kitten shots.

It's also popular among vaccine enthusiasts to cite fears of autism as the root cause of pet parents' increasing reluctance to re-vaccinate their animal companions, and the author of the Time article falls right in line with the rest.

Since to date there's no scientific evidence that autism occurs in dogs, the pro-vaccine crowd seems to use this particular example to suggest ignorance on the part of pet owners who are concerned about vaccine adverse reactions or the unstudied and unknown immunologic side effects of repeated revaccinations.

However, in my experience, the vast majority of people hesitant to submit their pets to repeated vaccinations are simply concerned about the long-term health of their animals. Autism is almost never part of the discussion. These people want their veterinarians to explain to them why their animals need to be vaccinated over and over again for the same diseases, and whether there are risks involved in injecting adjuvants into their pet year in and year out.

Veterinarians faced with these questions can point to the latest American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) vaccination guidelines, but those guidelines don't adequately address how long immunity actually lasts in vaccinated pets. Unbelievably, it's an area of research that has been virtually ignored by the veterinary community until very recently. And can you guess who set the initial guidelines for annual veterinary vaccines decades ago? Vaccine manufacturers, that's who.

How Big Is the Pet Parent 'Anti-Vaxxer' Movement, Really?

The Time article cites some statistics from the U.K. where the problem of "anti-vaxxers" is "acute," according to the author. Interestingly, the reason most often given by pet owners for not getting their animals vaccinated is, "it's not necessary." In the case of puppy and kitten shots, the "it's not necessary" approach may be misguided and potentially life-threatening, especially in high risk environments such as city pounds, shelters and rescue organizations.

However, in the case of pets who've been appropriately immunized as puppies and kittens and are titer tested in lieu of re-vaccination, "it's not necessary" is an entirely appropriate and intelligent response. The Time author apparently had trouble digging up U.S. statistics on the "anti-vaxxer" movement. In fact, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) replied to him in an email that:

"We are not aware of studies that have documented a change in vaccination rates in pets. The ASPCA Community Medicine team alone performs tens of thousands of vaccinations annually for owned dogs and cats, rescue animals."2

To my knowledge, there is no pet parent "anti-vaxxer" movement in this country. However, an increasing number of concerned pet parents are indeed objecting to repeated re-vaccinations per the recommended every one-year or three-year schedule, because veterinarians can't give them a satisfactory answer as to why those vaccines need to be given over and over and over.

Veterinary immunologist Dr. Ronald Schultz has done an excellent job educating pet parents about how pets' immune systems work over the last several decades. More and more owners understand that once a pet has established viral protective immunity, you can't "boost" a pet's immune system and achieve additional protection with more vaccines. Now that thousands of pet owners understand more is not better, veterinarians are having a harder time justifying the unnecessary repetition.

Why Aren't More Veterinarians Interested in Titering to Avoid Over-Vaccinating Pets?

According to a 2017 article in the American Veterinarian on the so-called anti-vaccination movement, some of the skepticism about pet vaccines "may correspond to the more holistic lifestyle of the younger generation that has flocked to the trendy city."3 A veterinarian interviewed for the article had this to say:

"It's actually much more common in the hipster-y areas. I really don't know what the reasoning is, they just feel that injecting chemicals into their pet is going to cause problems."

A much more important question is, shouldn't veterinarians be at least as concerned as pet owners about repeatedly injecting unnecessary chemicals (adjuvants) into pets? One dog parent interviewed for the American Veterinarian article is strongly against over-vaccination of pets because in her words, "vaccines tank immune systems, allowing a welcome mat for illnesses."

The woman had a young dog who developed an aggressive form of brain cancer shortly after being vaccinated, and she believes the cancer may have been encouraged by an immune system weakened by over-vaccination. She remains a strong advocate for vaccination of puppies and young dogs, but not for all adult dogs.

This is precisely the type of pet parent I mentioned earlier — she believes in initial puppy vaccinations, but not repetitive vaccinations of adult dogs. She also understands the importance and value of titer testing as an alternative to "booster vaccinations." Titer testing is an effective way to determine whether previous vaccines are still providing immunity against specific diseases and can empower veterinarians to create customized vaccine protocols for individual pets.

After all, veterinarians must all be vaccinated for rabies themselves, but after our initial rabies vaccines we are titered for rabies antibodies in place of automatically receiving an annual human rabies vaccine. Does this make every veterinarian an "anti-vaxxer," or a hypocrite?

The Goal Should Be to Immunize Pets, Not to Vaccinate Them Over and Over

The goal of the conventional veterinary community is to encourage vaccinations, though the word they use is immunization, not vaccination. This is a hugely important distinction. Vaccination and immunization are not one and the same. Immunization is the outcome of effective vaccination against disease and/or exposure to a disease that the animal recovers from.

The act of administering a vaccine doesn't automatically mean the animal has been immunized against the disease, however, that is the assumption. Since I don't like to assume a pet is protected against disease, I make it a practice to run titer tests within a few weeks of the last round of puppy or kitten shots to ensure immunity has been achieved.

When an animal is successfully vaccinated against certain diseases (e.g., distemper, parvo and adenovirus in dogs) and becomes immunized, she receives what we call sterile immunity. Sterile immunity lasts a minimum of 7 to 9 years, up to a maximum of lifetime immunity as measured by titer tests.

This means the dog cannot become infected, nor will she shed the virus should she be exposed. Since the diseases of distemper, parvo and hepatitis (adenovirus) are everywhere, the risk of exposure is constant.

Other types of vaccines, typically noncore vaccines (called bacterins) against bacterial-derived diseases such as Lyme disease, leptospirosis, bordetella (kennel cough), canine influenza (a virus, but one that mutates constantly so vaccine is not consistently protective) and others, do not produce sterile immunity.

These vaccines last a year at most, and antibody levels against these diseases (as measured by titer tests) decrease with each passing year, meaning lifelong protection is questionable (similar to tetanus vaccines in humans).

I prefer to run IFA (immunofluorescence antibody) titer tests for parvo and distemper because they give a clear-cut answer, either "yes the animal is protected," or "no the animal is not protected." Because most veterinary schools are still not adequately educating their students about titer test interpretation, this removes any question of whether the pet is protected or not.

Serology and other testing methods can be confusing for pet parents and vets, alike. For example, a low serology score doesn't mean the pet isn't protected against disease. It's possible an animal may still be protected for up to a year or longer thanks to immune memory cells.

For purposes of comparison, veterinary core vaccines are similar to human polio and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines that provide lifetime immunity. Noncore veterinary vaccines can be compared to the human tetanus vaccine, which is also a bacterin and may not last for a lifetime.

How to Play It Safe and Smart With Your Pet's Vaccinations

Discuss what kinds of vaccines your pet needs, and how often, with your veterinarian. I strongly encourage you to try to find an integrative veterinarian to care for your pet, especially when it comes to vaccinations.

If you can't locate one in your area, make sure not to take your pet to any veterinary practice that promotes annual or more frequent re-vaccinations. Also try to avoid any boarding facility, groomer, training facility or other animal service that requires you to vaccinate your pet more than necessary. Instead, look for pet care providers who accept antibody titer tests in lieu of proof of vaccination. Ensure each vaccine your furry family member receives meets the following criteria:

Your pet is healthy! Animals must be healthy to receive vaccines, so if your pet has allergies, endocrine issues, organ dysfunction, cancer (or is a cancer survivor) or another medical issue, he or she is NOT a candidate to receive vaccines.

It is for a life-threatening disease (this eliminates most on the list immediately).

Your pet has the opportunity to be exposed to the disease.

The vaccine is considered both effective and safe (most aren't, especially the bactrins).

Do not vaccinate a pet that has had a previous vaccine reaction of any kind.

If you do vaccinate your pet, ask your integrative vet to provide a homeopathic vaccine detox such as Thuja (a common choice for all vaccines except rabies).

Rabies vaccines are required by law but insist on the three-year versus the one-year vaccine and request the homeopathic rabies vaccine detoxifier Lyssin from your veterinarian. If your pet is young, ask to have the rabies vaccine given after 4 months of age, preferably closer to 6 months, to reduce the risk of an adverse reaction. Sick pets, including those with cancer, should never be vaccinated against rabies.



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