Figures from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Annual Welfare Report have demonstrated that millions of pets in the UK are vulnerable to preventable diseases (data taken from the 2014 PAW report). Their research tells us that around 31% of pets in the UK have never had a booster vaccination and 21% have never been vaccinated at all; this means that millions of pets are at risk and could die prematurely from devastating preventable illnesses such as Parvovirus, Leptospirosis (humans can catch this one too!), Feline Leukaemia and Feline Infections Enteritis because their owners are failing to vaccinate them.
Why Should We Vaccinate?
In the past many animals became severely ill because of diseases which, thanks to vaccination, are now rarely seen. Although these diseases are less common, they have not been completely eradicated. If the number of pets protected by vaccines drops our pets could be at risk from an outbreak of infectious diseases, some of which can be transmitted to humans. This is similar to the human measles outbreak that has been seen recently in the UK, because so many children were not vaccinated.
Vaccination protects our pets from the many diseases that cause illness, pain, distress and even death. Vaccinating your pet against preventable diseases is a vital part of responsible pet care. When you vaccinate your pet, not only are you protecting them from these diseases but you are preventing the spread of disease to other animals.
How do vaccines work?
Pathogens are microbes such as viruses or bacteria that cause disease. Vaccines include a small amount of the weakened or harmless microbe, which when introduced into the body stimulates the immune system to produce antibodies. The immune system is then able to remember the microbe so that if the body is invaded by the real disease, it is able to fight it instantly and stop the disease developing. With some vaccinations, the immune system ‘memory’ is fairly short, which is why booster vaccinations are needed (Leptospirosis, Parainfluenza, Feline Leukaemia, Myxomatosis & HVD are examples of vaccines that need a yearly booster).
A vaccine is usually given by an injection under the skin, although sometimes may be given as drops into the nose (kennel cough).
All vaccines have to undergo rigorous testing to prove they are safe and effective before they are licensed for use. When used appropriately and as recommended they are both safe and provide crucial protection for animals against a number of diseases.
Do homeopathic vaccines work?
Some people are tempted to use homeopathic ‘vaccines’ However, these ‘vaccines’ have no scientific basis and there is no independent evidence to show that they work in protecting pets against disease. A few properly designed trials have been carried out using homeopathic vaccines and have shown no evidence of protection against disease.
What do the vaccinations protect against?
Canine Distemper: Spread by bodily secretions, e.g. saliva. Symptoms include fever, depression, coughing, vomiting, diarrhoea and discharge from eyes and mouth. Dogs that recover, may go on to have neurological problems in later life such as muscle spasms, circling and seizures. Some recovered dogs also suffer from eye problems hand a thickening of the skin over their nose and foot pads.
Canine Parvovirus: Spread by contact with faeces from infected dogs. This virus can survive in the environment for up to nine months. It causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea (often with blood). Approximately 80% of dogs will die from this disease if left untreated.
Infectious Canine Hepatitis: Spread by contact with the saliva, urine, faeces, blood or nasal discharge of infected dogs. The urine of an infected dog can be infectious for up to a year, and the virus can survive in the environment for many months. There are two versions of this virus – one causes a kennel cough type infection, the other causes hepatitis (an infection of the liver). Symptoms include lethargy, coughing, fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, jaundice and abdominal pain.
Leptospirosis: The main source of infection is via infected urine, or by contaminated water, so dogs are at risk if they swim in or drink from stagnant water or canals, especially in areas with high numbers of rats. This disease can be passed humans and can be fatal! Symptoms include fever, lethargy, increased thirst, vomiting, bloody diarrhoea and jaundice. In severe infections dogs develop kidney and/or liver failure and will often die.
Kennel Cough: A highly infectious disease that is easily spread wherever there are lots of dogs in one place. It is spread from small droplets in the air which are inhaled, or from direct contact. Even when a dog has recovered from kennel cough he can still pass it to other dogs for several weeks. Symptoms include sneezing (in the early stages), a harsh cough and nasal discharges.
Feline Herpes Virus & Feline Calicivirus: These viruses can by spread by direct contact with affected cats, in the air (sneezing and coughing cats), or contamination of the environment. Cats that recover can become carriers and transmit the infection to other cats. Symptoms include fever, inappetance, discharge from the nose/eyes and sneezing. It can also cause drooling and severe mouth ulcers. More severe strains can lead to pneumonia. Stress or illness can cause flare-ups of the virus in carrier cats.
Feline Infectious Enteritis: Spread by the faeces and urine of infected cats, the virus can survive in the environment for long periods. The virus attacks the cat’s immune system, leaving the cat unable to fight infection. Symptoms include lethargy and inappetance, fever, seizures, vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration. Kittens born with this disease suffer from tremors and poor coordination and may also be born blind.
Feline Leukaemia Virus: Spread by saliva/nasal secretions and is thought to require close contact with an affected cat for the infection to be transmitted (fighting / bite wounds, mating, grooming between cats). It may also be transmitted from a mother cat to her kittens via her milk. Symptoms include poor body condition, poor coat, anorexia, recurrent infections or disease, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), diarrhoea and jaundice. The virus infects the cat’s bone marrow, which can result in leukaemia (cancer of the white blood cells) and anaemia, cats may also develop lymphoma (cancer of the lymph nodes).
Myxomatosis: This is transmitted to rabbits by flying and biting insects such as mosquitos, rabbit fleas and mites. It causes severe swelling of the lips , eyelids, ears and genitals. Treatment is rarely successful and rabbits with this disease are often euthanased.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease: This is a highly contagious disease and can be transmitted to rabbits from other rabbits, or contaminated food, equipment or clothing. Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is nearly always fatal and causes severe internal bleeding.
When should we vaccinate?
Puppies and kittens usually have an initial course of two vaccinations starting when they are 8-9 weeks old (sometimes younger in high risk areas) and then a yearly booster vaccination to provide continuing immunity.
Rabbits have an initial vaccination that can start from 5 weeks old
All animals then have an annual or booster vaccination to keep their immunity levels up. Dogs in particular may not need to have all parts of the vaccination every year, but your vet can advise you on the best course of action as it may depend on the area you live in and which diseases are prevalent.
Vaccination Safety and Necessity
“I’ve read a great deal about yearly booster injections for dogs and cats not being necessary and the harmful have side effects. Do you offer any alternatives – titre tests, less frequent boosters etc?”
At Castle Vets we offer a thorough and comprehensive annual health check which is important for your pet in order to ensure he or she is in full and good health. During these annual health checks, vaccination is always discussed but not always given, depending on the individual’s circumstances.
Providing that the dog or cat has had its two initial (puppy/kitten) vaccinations and its first year booster, Castle Vets will only give dogs the full booster vaccination for Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus for dogs every three years and cats the Feline Enteritis booster every 3 years . We do recommend an annual booster for the other diseases, because studies have shown that immunity to these viruses does not last very long. This of course is always based on the individual animal’s individual needs and circumstances.
Vaccinations are one of the most important weapons in the fight against infectious diseases and many diseases have been virtually eliminated through vaccination control programs. Vaccination is necessary in order to protect our pets against life threatening disease and is the only proven method of doing this.
Remember that there are no specific cures for the diseases that our pets can get and that these diseases can cause severe illness and distress and are often fatal. In the case of Leptospirosis, treatment is available but can be extremely expensive and it may not always be successful.
It is worth noting that most boarding kennels require proof of annual vaccinations before admittance. Some pet insurance companies also insist on annual vaccinations, but more are now moving towards an annual health check which we fully endorse.
Blood testing antibody levels
It is possible to perform blood tests to check for the levels of antibodies in the blood, which will show us how well an animal is protected against a certain disease. Some owners request these tests so that they know whether or not to have their pet’s annual booster vaccination. Castle Vets are happy to do this for you if your wish.
What about harmful side effects?
Serious side effects such as anaphylactic shock and vaccine associated fibrosarcoma are extremely rare. Very occasionally an animal may have a localised reaction such as, swelling or irritation at the site of vaccination, or they may have systemic affects such as fever, loss of appetite or lethargy (you might have experienced this if you have ever had a flu jab). These symptoms can occur within minutes to 1 week after vaccination but usually disappear on their own.
The very small risk of a vaccine side effect is greatly outweighed by the benefit of protection against serious disease. This point has been endorsed by the Working Group set up by the government’s independent expert Veterinary Products Committee who undertook a thorough review of all UK licensed dog and cat vaccines. An independent and scientifically peer reviewed study carried out by the Animal Health Trust, has produced the clearest evidence yet that routine vaccination of dogs in the UK does not increase frequency of illness.
Do not be worried about asking your vet questions regarding your pet’s care, that is what they are there for. If you have any concerns or would like to know more about vaccination or any aspect of your pet’s health and care please discuss this with one of our vets who will be happy to advise you. You can contact Castle Vets by phoning us on 0118 9574488.
Much of the above information has come from the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) and we would urge you to visit their website if you would like more information on vaccines.