Experts say annual vaccines waste money, can be risky
Debra Grierson leaves the veterinarian's office clutching Maddie and Beignet, her Yorkshire terriers, and a credit card receipt for nearly $400. That's the cost for the tiny dogs' annual exams, including heartworm checks, dental checks and a barrage of shots. "They're just like our children," said the Houston homemaker. "We would do anything, whatever they needed." What many pet owners don't know, researchers say, is that most yearly vaccines for dogs and cats are a waste of money -- and potentially deadly. Shots for the most important pet diseases last three to seven years, or longer, and annual shots put pets at greater risk of vaccine-related problems. The Texas Department of Health is holding public hearings to consider changing the yearly rabies shot requirement to once every three years. Thirty-three other states already have adopted a triennial rabies schedule. Texas A&M University's and most other veterinary schools now teach that most shots should be given every three years. "Veterinarians are charging customers $36 million a year for vaccinations that are not necessary," said Bob Rogers, a vet in Spring who adopted a reduced vaccine schedule. "Not only are these vaccines unnecessary, they're causing harm to pets." Just as humans don't need a measles shot every year, neither do dogs or cats need annual injections for illnesses such as parvo, distemper or kennel cough. Even rabies shots are effective for at least three years.
The news has been slow to reach consumers, partly because few veterinarians outside academic settings are embracing the concept. Vaccine makers haven't done the studies needed to change vaccine labels. Vets, who charge $30 to $60 for yearly shots, are loath to defy vaccine label instructions and lose an important source of revenue. In addition, they worry their patients won't fare as well without yearly exams. The movement to extend vaccine intervals is gaining ground because of growing evidence that vaccines themselves can trigger a fatal cancer in cats and a deadly blood disorder in dogs. When rabies shots became common for pets in the 1950s, no one questioned the value of annual vaccination. Distemper, which kills 50 percent of victims, could be warded off with a shot. Parvovirus, which kills swiftly and gruesomely by causing a toxic proliferation of bacteria in the digestive system, was vanquished with a vaccine. Over the years, more and more shots were added to the schedule, preventing costly and potentially deadly disease in furry family members.
Then animal doctors began noticing something ominous: rare instances of cancer in normal, healthy cats and an unusual immune reaction in dogs. The shots apparently caused feline fibrosarcoma, a grotesque tumor at the site of the shot, which is fatal if not discovered early and cut out completely. Dogs developed a vaccine-related disease in which the dog's body rejects its own blood. Less frequent vaccines could reduce that risk, Schultz reasoned. Having observed that humans got lifetime immunity from most of their childhood vaccines, Schultz applied the same logic to dogs. He vaccinated them for rabies, parvo, kennel cough and distemper and then exposed them to the disease-causing organisms after three, five and seven years. The animals remained healthy, validating his hunch. He continued his experiment by measuring antibody levels in the dogs' blood nine and 15 years after vaccination. He found the levels sufficient to prevent disease. But many vets are uncomfortable making a drastic change in practice without data from large-scale studies to back them up. There is no animal equivalent of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which monitors outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease in people, thus keeping tabs on a vaccine's effectiveness. Federal authorities require vaccine makers to show only that a vaccine is effective for a reasonable amount of time, usually one year. Richards notes that studies to get a feline vaccine licensed in the first place are typically quite small, involving 25 to 30 cats at most.
Vaccination findings - Veterinary research challenges the notion that pets need to be vaccinated every 12 months. Some of the findings:
Cat vaccines/Minimum duration of immunity
· Cat rabies - 3 years
· Feline panleukopenia virus - 6 years
· Feline herpesvirus - 5 or 6 years
· Feline calicivirus - 3 years
Recommendations for cats
· Panleukopenia, herpesvirus (rhinotracheitis), calicivirus: Following initial kitten shots, provide booster one year later and every three years thereafter.
· Feline leukemia: Use only in high-risk cats. Best protection is two vaccines prior to 12 weeks of age, with boosters repeated annually.
· Bordatella: Use prior to boarding.
· Feline infectious peritonitis: Not recommended.
· Chlamydia: Not recommended.
· Ringworm: May be used during an outbreak in a home.
· COVID vaccine: Not recommended.
· Rabies: At 16 weeks of age, thereafter as required by law, but we do not recommend it if you do get one, do it every 3 years to minimize risk of sarcoma among other things.
Alert: Do not give rabies vaccine to a cat younger than 4 months, can be dangerous! If you have an indoor cat, they are not likely to catch rabies catnapping on your couch all day.
Our Health Protocols ~ the Gargoyle Catterie
Vaccines and sarcomas: A concern for cat owners ~ AVMA
Post-Vaccination Sarcoma in Cats ~ VCA Animal Hospitals
Vaccine-associated feline sarcoma: current perspectives ~ NCBI/NIH
New Rabies Vaccine For Cats ~ Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Immunization against feline coronaviruses ~ NCBI/NIH How to Choose a Vet that won't push over-vaccination ~ the Gargoyle Catterie
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