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Does Not Vaccinating My Dog Make Me an Anti-Vaxxer?

Advice from a veterinarian, the Minister of Happiness for the Veterinary Information Network and the president of the British Veterinary Association

Parenting a pet, no matter what kind, can be a frustrating and bewildering experience. Animals can’t tell you what they want and need (directly, at least), so we’re here to help you answer any questions you have about your favorite companion — whether they be furry, slimy, feathered, scaly or anything in between — with insight from the experts. This is “Basic Bitch,” an advice column for pet parents who just want the best for their best friend.

The Very Basic Concern

I rescued my dog from a shelter called NKLA a few years ago, and they’d already given him all of his puppy vaccines. I still try to get him his boosters whenever I get the chance, but life has been busy lately, and as it turns out, he’s now several weeks (okay, six months) late on a few of them — at least, according to the little cards my vet has been sending, urging me to come get him re-vaccinated, stat. Now I feel like a horrible dog dad, and — in the same way that not getting a flu shot endangers other people around you — a little bit like an anti-vaxxer, too.

Basically: Does not vaccinating my dog make me an anti-vaxxer? And do I always need to get my dog all of the boosters, anyway?

Disclaimer: While this article is intended to provide some insight about doggie vaccines, you should always discuss what’s best for your dog and their unique situation with your veterinarian.

The Expert Advice

Jean Dodds, veterinarian and founder of Hemopet, a blood bank that provides blood services and supplies for transfusions to veterinary clinics: As long as a pet has received the appropriate core vaccines as a puppy, booster vaccines may not be needed. So electing not to give annual boosters — when a serum antibody titer test [which measures the amount of antibodies in a pet’s blood, and in turn, the strength of their immune system] can be run instead to document protection — doesn’t make one an “anti-vaxxer.”

The core vaccines for dogs are canine distemper, canine parvovirus, canine adenovirus (which protects against infectious canine hepatitis, although there have been no documented clinical cases in North America for at least 15 years) and rabies. The rest of the canine vaccines are non-core and optional, depending on the exposure risk in a particular area and the caregiver-pet lifestyle.

Tony Johnson, emergency and critical care veterinarian and Minister of Happiness for the Veterinary Information Network: “Anti-vaxx” is sort of a movement, or a mindset. I think just not doing it — like, if you don’t do it for financial reasons, or if you don’t do it out of a lack of education or a lack of time — I don’t know if that would make you a part of some sort of movement. I don’t think it would put you firmly in that camp. I see lots of people who get a puppy from a box in front of Walmart and not know it needs vaccines, or it becomes one of those things — “Oh, I’ve been meaning to get it done,” and then, boom, The puppy has parvo.

I have two dogs in my house. They’re both six or seven years old, and the likelihood that they’re going to contract an infectious disease is pretty slim. They’re not going to get parvo [which he says a puppy should absolutely be vaccinated for]; canine distemper is very rare; there’s a disease called leptospirosis, which can be transmitted to people, so that would be a consideration. I’ve worked with some people who’ve gotten lepto from dogs. That one gets complicated, because it’s kind of like the flu vaccine, where the vaccine that’s out there may not match up to the strains that we’re seeing in nature. But my older dogs typically don’t get vaccines, except for rabies, which is a legal mandate. 

Rabies has largely been eradicated, but it still kills tens of thousands of people in developing countries. So the reason it’s been controlled so well here is partly because of vaccinating our pet species, which are a barrier between us and wildlife they may encounter. That’s so important it’s come down to being legislated: Rabies vaccines are required.

A lot of it would depend on the risk level of the dog. If this is a dog that lives in an endemic area for a certain disease, they stand a far higher chance of being helped by the vaccine than harmed. If it’s a dog that lives in an apartment in New York and literally never goes outside, the odds are very low. If it’s a dog that’s running around on farmland with cow pasture nearby, that’s how leptospirosis can be spread. Or if it’s a dog that’s on the show circuit or gets boarded once a month, then the odds of it getting something like kennel cough go way up. So it really depends on the dog’s particular circumstances.

The anti-vaxxer position of “vaccines are horrible and harmful” is just as bad and poorly thought out as “every dog needs to have every vaccine every time.”

Daniella Dos Santos, president of the British Veterinary Association, who’s been forced to make several comments on “anti-vax” sentiment in the pet world: Vaccinations save lives and are an important tool in keeping our pets healthy. Distemper and parvovirus are still killers in pets, and the reason we no longer see these on a wider scale is because most owners sensibly choose to vaccinate. There’s also a public health element to vaccinating our pets, as some diseases in animals that can be easily prevented by vaccination, such as rabies and leptospirosis, can also pose a serious risk to humans. 

It’s essential that owners make a fully informed choice in partnership with their local vet on a suitable vaccination and overall preventative health-care program tailored for their pet. Always speak to your vet for advice or to raise any concerns you may have about a disease or vaccine.