Monday, August 24, 2009 9:26 AM

Pet Vaccinations: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Disease vaccination, whether of animals or humans, is a topic that pops up fairly often in the news media. Whether the issue is vaccine utility, injury or whether a particular inoculation should be given at all, this is an evolving science that begs our scrutiny. So much more is being learned about the body's reaction to disease-causing agents every day that we need to pay attention to whether the old protocols concerning vaccinating are useful, benign or even harmful, given this new information.

When I was in school studying Veterinary Technology in the late 1970s and early 1980s, cats and dogs were routinely vaccinated each year for a slew of infectious diseases. When I started working for veterinarians after school, I learned that these annual events were a real money-maker for them. In fact, I would say that the majority of their business, at least in those days, were made up of annual pet check-ups and booster shot administration. The fee for the visit, any medications dispensed and the charge for the shot (which cost the vets a fraction of what they charged the customer) brought in a pretty good sum. It wasn't so high, though, that most pet owners minded paying it, and their pets (usually) got a clean bill of health. So, really, everybody was happy.

Then questions started to arise. I admit I asked the vets some questions myself, such as why we, as humans, are vaccinated against certain diseases as children and are assumed to be immune for life without yearly boosters, while the same assumption is not made about pets. I never got a straight answer, as I recall. But others asked this type of question, and more, such as: Are the multitude of vaccines incorporated in the one "shot" harmful? Are they all even necessary? Might it be safer to give single inoculations, spaced further apart? Can they cause disease later in life, even cancer?

Animal care practitioners didn't like all these questions. Giving many vaccines in one shot had been a boon for them, as they could tell the pet owner how much more protection their animal was now getting without having to stick the cat or dog with a needle more than once, something owners don't like to see. Plus, for the same amount of work, they got to charge more. And it was true that the pet was getting a greater number of vaccine doses at once, although whether this afforded more protection or was really necessary wasn't discussed.

I was working at the University during the 1990s when this debate really started heating up. In our lab, we had a lot of contact with MA state veterinarians, who defended the old practice as necessary not only for pets' health, but for the public, as well. Much of this latter part of the discussion centered on rabies vaccination, and they were not incorrect that rabies is a public health concern. The real question was, however, not "Should dogs and cats be inoculated against rabies", but "How often does this need to occur in order to guarantee protection?"

Tune in all this week for more information on this important subject. I will cover my personal experiences with vaccination as well as recent changes in the protocol. By the end of this series, I believe you will have enough information to decide which vaccinations you really need for your pet.
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Amanda has worked with animals for many years and has always had cats in her life. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and two excellent cats.
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