For 19 years, Dr. Susan has been a small-animal veterinarian, treating mostly cats and dogs in small towns and big cities around Canada. She’s noticed a disturbing pattern recently: pet owners questioning the necessity of animal vaccines — particularly rabies, which can kill both humans and beasts.
The anti-vaxx movement doesn’t just affect children. Unvaccinated pets are at risk, too — along with the people who take care of them.
Like baby humans, baby animals are typically immunized against diseases they can catch from other animals and bugs. This could be anything from bordetella bronchiseptica, or “kennel cough,” to canine hepatitis and, of course, rabies.
“Rabies is 100 percent fatal 100 percent of the time,” Susan explains. According to the CDC, there are 59,000 worldwide rabies deaths per year, mostly in Africa and Asia. “It’s not a vanquished disease. Rabid animals can enter their homes (usually bats), so [vaccination is] not just for pets that roam free outdoors. Even if their indoor-only cat escapes once, I’d hate for it to end up with a fatal disease. Rabies rules are for the health of people, not the health of animals. Vaccinated pets and livestock are the barriers that help keep people safe from rabies.”
Dr. Susan, who is using a pseudonym to protect herself from online harassment, doesn’t mind people questioning the science of vaccinations. “I want people to understand it and make smart choices,” she says. “I’m happy to talk to them about it! [It’s] better to ask me and discuss it than taking the word of someone’s friend of a friend on Facebook.”
What troubles the veterinarian is all the misinformation feeding her customers’ paranoia, and the stubbornness of those who refuse to consider her reasoning. “In most places, it is legally required for owned animals (pets or livestock) to get a rabies vaccine, but there’s no way to make refusing a rabies vaccine illegal,” Susan tells MEL. “I don’t know that they haven’t or won’t go get their animal vaccinated somewhere else, or at some other time.”
“In a few cases, I am unable to convince them of the benefits of any vaccine, but even among the 5 percent, I can convince most of them to allow a rabies vaccine — even if they refuse the vaccines against the various dog- or cat- only diseases,” Susan explains.
So just how far has the anti-vaxx movement crept into the vet’s office? I talked to Susan and a few other animal doctors to find out.
“Not vaccinating their dogs against rabies could put other people at risk of contracting a fatal disease.”
Dr. Susan, Small Animal Vet for 19 Years: They were staunchly opposed to vaccinating their pets. After a 20-minute conversation, I explained that rabies vaccines were not just to protect their pets or even themselves, but to protect myself and my staff.
I agreed it was their choice to accept the risk to their pets and to themselves, but when it comes to rabies, I didn’t think it was their right to put us at risk — and if one of their dogs was carrying rabies, the staff and I would be at risk of exposure every time we worked with them. The only way to ensure every animal is vaccinated against rabies is for legal bylaw officers or inspectors to check the proof of vaccination of every animal, and you can imagine how that’s an impossibility.
That was the argument that convinced them: when they truly understood that not vaccinating their dogs against rabies could put other people at risk of contracting a fatal disease, specifically the people who would work closely with their pets and whom they would rely on for health care for their pets. I hope they realized the same for their own (and their children’s) vaccine status.
“The puppy is not a blood relation!”
Dr. M., Small Animal Vet for 10 Years: Thankfully, I don’t have too many anti-vaxx clients, but those who are would all be considered all middle class and generally have some kind of education. Basically, they have enough knowledge to trust “experts” and “evidence,” but not enough knowledge to critically examine the above and determine whether said “expert” or “evidence” is actually valid. And because they see themselves as smart enough to “see through Big Pharma,” it’s really hard to get them to change their minds.
Most of my stories mirror the ones you hear everywhere, but my most striking one is a (really quite lovely) client who has basically been brought up to be completely terrified of vaccines because their parent’s sibling had one of those super-rare adverse events after a vaccine. This client’s parent has raised them to be so utterly terrified of vaccines that they went into full panic mode about vaccinating their puppy. I can understand direct family members being cautious about vaccines with a family history of a vaccine reaction (obviously, they should have a discussion with their doctor before declining them!), but the puppy is not a blood relation!
I spent a lot of time addressing their concerns and gave them a bunch of information, and they agreed to the first set of vaccines, which the puppy sailed through with flying colors. But then [the client’s] vaccine-paranoid parent showed up to the next appointment and talked them into declining the booster. For a dog that did awesome with the last set. For a booster against a disease that we have in our area that has killed a bunch of my patients. And a disease that can be passed on to people. There are young kids in that house… FFS.
The dog is currently fine, but is not protected against a bunch of diseases that it should be. If an unvaccinated dog bites someone, the law provides for a $5,000 fine. But in practice, it’s almost never done, which is frustrating. If they’d fine a few people, the vaccination rate would go up once the word gets around…
A lot of jurisdictions don’t even require rabies, which blew my mind when I found out. It is legally required where I live, but there’s no reporting requirement for the people who refuse, and the only ones who can enforce it are public health and animal control, meaning that the only times a vaccine is legally checked up on is in the case of an aggressive animal or animal bite — that is, after the incident has already occurred.
“She did not believe that vaccines actually worked. Turns out her dog had parvovirus and we had to hospitalize it for seven days.”
Elayna, Veterinarian’s Technician for Three Years: I’ve found that in rural places, most people either don’t vaccinate their pets or do only the bare minimum — which is rabies — mainly because they don’t interact with other people’s animals. People in cities tend to get all of the vaccines because they’re are more likely to go to the dog park/doggy daycare.
We don’t get a whole lot of anti-vaxx people in. What we do get though is a lot of people worried that their dog getting three shots at one time is going to hurt them. We also have a lot of people who think we just care about money and that’s why we only do a one-year rabies vaccine, which we do to be safe and make sure everyone is protected.
That being said, most people refuse the leptospirosis vaccine because “the dog only goes in the backyard.” What they don’t realize is that their dog can still get lepto there, since it’s a bacterial disease spread by rodent urine and can cause liver and kidney damage. Plus it is zoonotic, meaning it can be passed to humans
The worst anti-vaxx was actually this year. A woman came in with her 1-year-old dog who was lethargic. When I asked about vaccines, she stated that [the dog] had only one series, when she was a puppy, from the breeder.
She did not believe that vaccines actually worked. [She thought they] caused more harm than good. Turns out her dog had parvovirus and we had to hospitalize it for seven days. The whole ordeal was about $2,000. We strongly advised that she come back for vaccines in the next week, but she said no.
Ultimately people who are anti-vaxx, or honestly just pure lazy, break my heart. Everyone believes “it won’t happen to my dog.” Then when their dog gets dangerously ill, they don’t understand why. Like, I once had someone say they read online that if you feed a dog raw garlic it will get rid of intestinal worms. Garlic is a huge no-no; it can be toxic.
Nevertheless, we get a lot of “Dr. Google” clients who don’t believe our diagnosis because there’s no way we know what we’re talking about.