Pet vaccination is quite a hot topic all over the world with owners debating whether they should or should not vaccinate their pets and lots of people out there have opinions on the pros and cons of vaccinations (just type should i vaccinate my pet? into your search engine and see how many hits you get!). This article is here to give you the facts and let you make up your own mind because, at the end of the day, you are the owner and ultimately the decision is yours.
Figures from the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA) Annual Welfare Report have demonstrated that pets in the UK are vulnerable to preventable diseases (data taken from the 2015 PAW report). Their research tells us that around 33% of pets in the UK have never had a booster vaccination and 22% have never been vaccinated at all; this means that pets could be at risk from devastating preventable illnesses such as Parvovirus, Leptospirosis (humans can catch this one too!), Distemper, Feline Leukaemia, Feline Infectious Enteritis and Myxomatosis because their owners are failing to vaccinate them.
Why Should We Vaccinate?
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. 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.
Vaccination protects our pets from the many diseases that cause illness, pain, distress and even death. Protecting your pet against preventable diseases is a vital part of responsible pet care. By ensuring that your pet is properly protected against diseases, not only are you protecting them, you are preventing the spread of disease to other animals.
Remember that there are no specific cures for the diseases that our pets can get and that these diseases can cause severe illness, pain and distress and can be fatal. In the case of Leptospirosis, treatment is available but can be extremely expensive and it may not always be successful.
Parvovirus certainly seems to be on the increase again; veterinary practices usually see just one or two isolated cases a year but they are starting to see many more cases and, in September this year (2016), I saw 3 cases of Parvovirus in puppies all at the same time (all from different litters). The increase is thought to be due to the number of puppy farms in existence, meaning that puppies are just being shipped into and around the UK without having being vaccinated and new owners not checking the vaccination status of the puppy’s mother before purchase.
How Do Vaccines Work?
In the most simple of terms, pathogens are microbes such as viruses or bacteria that cause disease. Vaccines include a small amount of a weakened 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 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).
What Do The Core Vaccinations Protect Against?
Canine Distemper: Spread by bodily secretions. 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 pads.
Canine Parvovirus: Spread by contact with faeces from infected dogs. This virus can survive in the environment for over nine months and is resistant to many disinfectants. It causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea (often with blood). It can affect any age of dog but is more likely to be fatal in puppies or immunosuppressed dogs.
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.
Canine Distemper: This can be transmitted to ferrets. It is spread by bodily secretions, e.g. saliva. Symptoms include fever, depression, coughing, vomiting, diarrhoea and discharge from eyes and mouth. Sadly most ferrets diagnosed with this disease need to be put to sleep.
There is no vaccine currently licensed specifically for use in ferrets in the UK but there are vaccines for distemper available. Your vet is able to vaccinate your ferret ‘off licence’ after a full discussion of the benefits and risks with you.
When Should We Vaccinate?
In the UK it is usually recommended that puppies and kittens have an initial course of two vaccinations starting when they are 8-9 weeks old (sometimes younger in high risk areas). Rabbits have an initial vaccination that can start from 5 weeks old and ferrets from 6 weeks old.
All animals may then have an annual or booster vaccination to keep their immunity levels up. Dogs and Cats do not need to have all parts of the vaccination every year and your vet can advise you on the best course of action as it may depend on your pets current health, the area you live in and which diseases are prevalent.
What Is Herd Or Community Immunity?
Herd immunity refers to the indirect protection from an infectious disease that happens when a large percentage of a population is immune to a disease or infection (either because they have been vaccinated or because they have become immune through other means); these immune individuals provide some protection for those that are not because the spread of an infection or disease is likely to be disrupted which will slow or stop it from spreading.
This Herd Immunity is often the reason why unvaccinated animals (and humans) do not contract certain diseases or infections. Unfortunately if the levels of immunity within a population drops (usually because less and less are vaccinated or there is a particularly virulent strain), we may start to see outbreaks of the disease suddenly spreading fast through a particular area.
Is Vaccination Necessary? (or “I have read in the internet that vets just vaccinate for the money, not because it is necessary for my pet”!)
Ultimately it is up to you the owner to decide whether or not to have your pet vaccinated. However, a thorough and comprehensive annual health check is really important for your pet in order to ensure he or she is in full and good health. During these annual health checks, vaccination should always discussed but not always given, depending on the individual’s circumstances.
For dogs and cats in the UK: Providing that the animal has had its two initial (baby) vaccinations and its first year booster, your vet will usually only give the full booster vaccination for Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus for dogs every three years and the Feline Enteritis booster for cats every three years . It is recommend an annual booster for the other diseases, because studies have shown that immunity to these diseases does not last very long (Leptospirosis also poses a risk to human health). However, this of course should always be based on the individual animal’s individual needs and circumstances and not every animal will require all parts of their vaccinations so frequently. At my practice we offer blood titre testing for dogs and cats, on request, to check for levels of immunity (see below) if you are concerned about over-vaccination.
Rabbits generally need their full booster every year as the immunity to Myxomatosis and VHD provided by the vaccination does not last longer than this. More recently a new strain of viral haemorrhagic disease (RHVD2) has been discovered and for those rabbits deemed to be in high risk areas, boosters as frequently as every 6 months may be warranted to ensure full protection.
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.
Before labeling and blaming vets regarding vaccinations it is also worth pointing out that the vast majority of boarding kennels, dog walkers and groomers also require pets to have had regular annual vaccinations before admittance. Some pet insurance companies also insist on annual vaccinations, but more are now moving towards an annual health check which I fully endorse.
The Chartered Institute Of Environmental Health updated their Model Licence Conditions and Guidance for Dog Boarding Establishments this year (2016) to include titre testing, and they state
“An up-to-date veterinary vaccination record must be seen to ensure that dogs boarded have current vaccinations against canine parvovirus, canine distemper, infectious canine hepatitis (adenovirus) and, leptospirosis. The date of the most recent vaccination must be recorded preferably with a valid until date. Certification from a veterinary surgeon of a recent protective titre test may be accepted in individual cases as evidence of protection against adenovirus, distemper and parvovirus. The certificate must state that it is valid for the period of stay at the kennels. It is the decision of the kennel proprietor whether to accept such a certificate”
However, I have contacted 23 dog kennels recently in the South East area, asking if they would take a dog with a titre certificate rather than vaccination proof – one establishment said that a letter from a vet regarding the titre test would be acceptable but the rest said no. I know this is a small number of establishments, but it does give a picture of what is and isn’t being accepted.
Titre Testing – Blood Testing To Check Antibody Levels
If you are worried about your pet being ‘over vaccinated’, the only way to know for sure that your pet is fully protected is to have a blood test done that will check the levels of disease antibodies in your pet’s blood. Some vets now stock vaccicheck tests which are in-house tests to measure antibody levels of Distemper, Parvovirus and Infectious Hepatitis, meaning that you can get results the same day. The cost of these tests varies from practice to practice, but they are generally slightly more expensive than the booster vaccinations would cost.
What About Harmful Side Effects?
Research is still ongoing into the risks of over-vaccination and if you are investigating this for your own pet I would urge you to visit the official sites where these papers are initially published and check out references properly (i.e. go to the source), rather than relying on hearsay from various ‘pet publications/blogs’ which, in my opinion, can tend to over exaggerate and use scare tactics.
Serious side effects such as anaphylactic shock and vaccine associated disease (e.g. immune mediated haemolytic anaemia) are very rare. Occasionally an animal may have a localised reaction such as, swelling or irritation at the site of vaccination, or they may have systemic effects such as fever, loss of appetite or lethargy (you might have experienced this yourself 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.
Feline Injection Site Sarcoma – This is very rare and is not only linked to vaccinations but other types of long acting injections as well. The true cause of this cancer is not yet understood, but is thought to occur as a result from an intense inflammatory response to the injection itself, or to substances within the vaccine. Because it is so rare, scientists believe that the tumors develop from a combination of a cat being genetically predisposed to the tumor, along with the stimulation caused by the actual vaccine or injection. Sarcomas can develop anywhere from 4 weeks to 10 years or more after receiving a vaccine. Vaccine technology in the UK has advanced since the condition was first reported in October 1991 and effective vaccinations now exist that have not yet been associated with this condition.
The small risk of a vaccine side effect is greatly outweighed by the benefit of protection against serious disease. Certainly pets need to have some level of immunity in order to be protected, but we don’t need to be vaccinating against every disease, every year.
Vaccine safety 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 (1). 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 (2).
If you are worried about potential side effects, please don’t be afraid to discuss your concerns with your vet because they will always have your pets best interests at heart.
(1) Veterinary Products Committee (VPC) Working Group on Canine and Feline Vaccination; final report to the VPC published by DEFRA, May 2001
(2) Vaccination and ill-health in dogs: a lack of temporal association and evidence of equivalence; D S Edwards, W E Henley, E R Ely and J L N Wood, Vaccine Journal, Volume 22/25-26, September 2004.
Do Homeopathic Nosode Vaccines Work?
The ages old debate about homeopathy rages all over the world and there is plenty to read about on the internet if you are interested.
Some owners may be drawn by the idea of using homeopathic ‘vaccines’ to protect their pets and may well have used homeopathic treatments that have been successful for various problems for both themselves and their pets.
Unfortunately research tells us that homeopathic nosode 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. Without proper trials and supporting evidence to back up these ‘vaccines’ you could be putting your pet (and others) at risk.
According to the British Veterinary Association “A ‘nosode’ vaccine is made from infected animal tissue or live micro-organisms, but then it is diluted to the point where there is insignificant (or no) micro-organism present. Nosodes are unlicensed veterinary products and there is no scientific evidence base to support their efficacy. By contrast, there is evidence that nosodes do not generate protective immunity. The use of nosodes therefore is regarded as putting individual pet animals at risk from contracting infectious disease and moreover weakens the population immunity to infection thereby allowing the more ready emergence of outbreaks of infectious disease“.
Please do not be worried about asking your vet questions regarding your pet’s care, that is what they are there for. They are not just out to get pets vaccinated as a money making enterprise and truly do have your pet’s best interests at heart.
Much of the above information has come from the National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) and we would urge you to visit their website or contact them if you would like more information on vaccines.