, Salem, MA

January 10, 2014

Vet Connection: To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

Vet Connection
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt

---- — The question “Why should I vaccinate my pet?” is not a new one. This is the case especially as wellness, natural and homeopathic medicine has gained ground. Homeopathy considers vaccines to be 100 percent harmful to the individual. Its premise is that eating well and taking care of the body will keep the life force, and if symptoms occur, they can be treated with varying dilutions of naturally occurring plants and minerals. Currently, the American Veterinary Medical Association has before it a resolution to declare non-confidence in homeopathy as an effective health care modality. It is unlikely that the resolution will pass. The effectiveness of homeopathy is impossible to test on a scientific basis, because each individual is treated with a different combination of these medications based on his or her symptoms. Since homeopathy medications are naturally occurring, big pharmaceutical companies cannot produce them and mark them up as they can vaccines and manufactured medications. Many veterinary practices are stressing wellness preventative medicine. Should this include vaccination?

People dig in their heels when it comes to vaccinating themselves and their pets. These days, virtually none of us has watched a loved one die from rabies or diphtheria or become withered with polio. We never grew up on farms and have no idea what “herd immunity” is. If you have a herd of cattle and want it to be free of a killer disease such as rhinderpest, you vaccinate 100 percent of the individuals in the herd. Vaccination gives each cow the “opportunity” to develop immunity. Hopefully, an individual’s lymph nodes and bone marrow are able to generate enough antibodies to develop immunity to the disease. If 70 percent of the herd develops immunity, then you have herd immunity to that virus. If one cow gets sick, there will probably be enough individuals around it with immunity that the disease won’t spread like wildfire and kill the whole herd. If 30 percent of the herd says, “Don’t vaccinate me because I am afraid of the side effects,” and an additional percentage of vaccinated cows do not mount an immune response, the herd immunity starts to wane, and there is increased likelihood of losing the entire herd to disease. For effective individual immunity, 90 percent of the herd must have immunity. If you want your particular pet or child to be spared from the disease while not vaccinating them, you are gambling that almost 100 percent of the other parents in your town are vaccinating those under their care and that 90 percent of those vaccinated are mounting immunity. As more families choose not to vaccinate, the percentage of those with immunity slips to under 90 percent, and there is a much higher likelihood that the individual under your care will contract the disease if exposed.

Rhinderpest is a killer disease of cattle, and it is very similar to viruses that cause canine distemper in dogs and measles in people. Rhinderpest was eradicated in 2001 via herd vaccination, but the dog and human viruses still kill dogs and people. The symptoms of the virus in dogs and people are similar: diarrhea, pneumonia, rash, thickened nose and footpads, encephalitis and death. Both of these viruses are making a comeback as people have cut back on vaccinating their dogs and children. According to the CDC, in 2013 there were outbreaks of measles occurring in 16 states, with the largest in New York, because more people in New York City are declining to vaccinate their children. The death rate for children with measles in the U.S. is three per 1,000. To give each child maximum protection, 100 percent should be vaccinated. That way, if some do not mount immunity, there will still be more than 90 percent with immunity and an epidemic will be unlikely.

Clusters of canine distemper have broken out in dog populations in the United States in California and Massachusetts — in nearby Amesbury — in August 2013. No one knows if the outbreaks are due to people not vaccinating their dogs or the veterinary profession changing from a one-year to a three-year canine distemper protocol several years ago. Raccoons can carry canine distemper and spread it to dogs through their urine and feces. Raccoons are in almost every backyard in America. If your dog is exposed to raccoons or their excrement, then it is exposed to distemper on a frequent basis.

The U.S. Army now vaccinates all its dogs for leptospirosis, a non-core vaccine to a killer spirochete bacterial disease, because its highly trained dogs were succumbing to leptospirosis when they were not vaccinated. The U.S. Army invests a lot of money to train these dogs, and it only made sense to protect its investment.

The bottom line is your veterinarian will recommend what is best for your pet’s life. That will depend where your pet travels, how much time is spent indoors versus outdoors, how many other dogs your pet comes into contact with, and how much wildlife and wildlife feces/urine/carcass your dog comes into contact with. If your dog is anything like mine, it will get into, eat and roll in an amazingly grotesque array of material and revel in it.

Your veterinarian has spent a good deal of time picking out the safest vaccines to administer to your pet. All vaccines are not equal. Some have lots more allergic reaction-causing protein in them. Many have adjuvant containing chemicals to boost immunity. Some are killed, and others are modified live. Others are made with DNA recombinant technology and are much cleaner. Not every type of vaccine is available in a DNA recombinant form, but some are refined to only have one type of select protein and are very pure. Your veterinarian will make every effort not to over-vaccinate your pet and may stagger the vaccines on a schedule that is safest for your pet and your family.

Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to Please title your email “Vet Connection.”