In a previous article, we covered the different types of vaccines for dogs and cats, and what they are for. In this article, we will focus more on common myths and misconceptions of vaccinating pets. Of course, decisions specific to your pet should be made by individual conversations between you and your veterinarian. This article will focus more on common myths and misconceptions about the safety and necessity for vaccines given to our pets. Please contact BLACC at 530-600-3911 if you have any questions or concerns. We’re here to help!
While it is absolutely appropriate to have careful evaluation of the risks vs. benefits of vaccination, irrational fears of vaccines has unfortunately caused the spread of many myths. Some concerns raised about vaccines used in people have been extended to animal vaccination, despite evidence that these concerns are typically unfounded. Vaccination has unfortunately been falsely labeled as a possible, or even probable cause for any disease that is not yet completely understood. While unknown and unpredictable risks are always possible, careful research has discovered even such rare adverse effects such as Vaccine-Associated-Sarcomas(VAS), and many of the purported negative effects of vaccines are merely wild speculations with no basis in fact.
One of the most common myths about vaccines is that they aren’t necessary since the diseases they protect against are rare. The diseases for which we have core vaccines in dogs and cats all continue to exist in the population as a threat to unvaccinated individuals. In fact, outbreaks of some these diseases often have occurred in cases where vaccine rates have dropped and the population is at higher risk. In other words, not vaccinating puts your pet at risk, but also raises the risks of other animals in their “community”.
Another common concern are the immune system diseases caused by vaccines. An autoimmune disease is where the immune system begins attacking normal cells in the body, basically as if they are foreign. Though autoimmune diseases such as IMHA(hemolytic anemia) may be associated with vaccination, this has not been conclusively demonstrated, and infectious organisms themselves can also trigger these abnormal immune responses, as well as other possible external factors. These conditions are uncommon, and any risk of them posed by vaccination is undoubtedly outweighed by the protection the vaccines offer against serious infectious diseases.
Some vaccinated animals have been shown to have antibodies against normal proteins in their own bodies, including the thyroid gland, blood, and the kidneys, and this has led to theories that diseases in these organs may be the result of vaccination. But the relationship between vaccination and such antibody formation is inconsistent, and no actual immune-mediated disease has ever been shown to result vaccine-related antibodies.
One of the most widely publicized report has been concerns over “toxins” in vaccines. Thimerosal, aluminum, formaldehyde, anti-freeze, and many other substances have been claimed to be present in vaccines and to be harmful to vaccinated people or animals. Some of these substances are present in minute quantities in certain vaccines, though many others are not. The primary misconception that creates unjustified fear about these ingredients is the notion that substances are inherently either toxic or unsafe.
As an example, water(H20) is one two hydrogen molecules bonded to one oxygen molecule. Hydrogen peroxide(H202) is two hydrogen molecules bound to two oxygen molecules. Though their composition is almost identical, the two are vastly different. Another example is ethanol(alcohol) vs methanol. Only one molecule different, but much different outcomes if you drink them! This is the case with thimerosal. While molecularly similar to conventional mercury, its chemical makeup is different and safe. In fact, reports from the World Health Organization have stated the addition of to human vaccines has likely led to prevention of tens of millions of deaths throughout the world!
Preservative such as thimerosal prevent infectious contamination of vaccines, and research in humans has shown they do not cause harm at the amounts given in vaccines. Aluminum adjuvant has not been associated with significant risk in humans. In cats, however, aluminum is believed to increase the risk of VAS, and non-adjuvanted vaccines are now recommended in this species. (We carry and recommend feline Pure Vax here at Blue Lake-no adjuvants).
Some have expressed concerns about the number of vaccines given in the puppy or kitten series, or over the lifetime of the pet, and have concerns that so many vaccine antigens (the part of the disease-causing organism that the immune system reacts to) may “overload” the immune system, causing health problems. However, the number of foreign antigenic triggers that animals are exposed to in vaccines is far less than what they encounter in the course of everyday life. We and our pets ingest and inhale thousands of antigens daily, and we are exposed to more through wounds, inhalation, and ingestion. The relative contribution of vaccines to the total antigen exposure of any individual is actually quite small.
Another myth is that vaccines should be dosed by body weight, like many drugs are in veterinary patients. Not true. While most drugs work by being distributed throughout the body and acting in proportion to their concentration in the blood or tissues, vaccines work by stimulating the immune system locally where they are administered. This varies by species and vaccine, but it has little or nothing to do with body size. Horses only receive twice as much rabies vaccine as dogs, and elephants only twice as much as horses. If only partial doses of vaccine are given, there is a real risk of not triggering an adequate response for protection.
Finally, there are reports of a vague, generalized illness attributed to vaccination and sometimes referred to as “vaccinosis.” There is no consistent definition of this, but it is generally described with anecdotes about animals that were vaccinated and became ill sometime afterwards, with no explanation of why a particular vaccine was responsible for the illness. There is no evidence that “vaccinosis” is a real clinical entity.
In fact, a large-scale study of over 4000 dogs completed by the Animal Health trust found no association between vaccination and any specific illness, or ill-health in general, in the 3 months following the vaccination. Careful and controlled research is needed to document any adverse reaction to vaccines, and without such research there is no basis for concluding that vaccines cause disease beyond the uncommon, and rarely serious reactions already identified.
Alternatives to Vaccination?
The most commonly chosen alternative to vaccination is simply to not vaccinate. Unfortunately, this replaces the very small risks from vaccines with a much greater risk of disease for the unprotected individual and for other animals and even humans. Don’t forget…not all the diseases we vaccinate for only affect dogs and cats. They can potentially affect people as well. It is true that natural exposure to infectious organisms can stimulate a protective immunity, but this comes with a risk of disease that is much more dangerous than the adverse effects of vaccines. Would you want to expose your puppy to parvo to build his immunity? Not us!
It has been suggested that proper nutrition in general, or special diets and dietary restrictions, can prevent disease and make vaccination unnecessary. The immune system does function poorly in malnourished animals,and those individuals who are fed adequate amounts of a balanced diet and are in good general health should usually have proper immune function. There is no evidence that special diets or dietary limitations can improve on this normal function, and diet is not a substitute for proper vaccination.
Finally, blood antibody titers can be an alternative to vaccination. This is a complex subject, and it is not possible to make a blanket recommendation about when titer testing is helpful. For some diseases, such as canine parvovirus, rabies, and feline panleukopenia, high antibody titer levels have been shown to reliably predict resistance to infection. Others, usually bacterial vaccines, do not show reliable titer evidence for immunity. In other words, titers can be useful in certain circumstances, but they are not appropriate as a complete alternative to vaccination for the general population.
As always, educated decisions about the overall health and happiness should be discussed with your veterinarian. Thanks for reading!