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Pet Vaccinations: To Shoot or Not To Shoot?

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

We’ve all heard horror stories about what can happen: a sweet, friendly dog turns aggressive…a healthy cat develops acute anemia…an active young pet sud-denly becomes arthritic, or has seizures, or gets cancer—victims of vaccinations.

The potential for such dangers might make you wonder why any veter-inarian committed to animals’ well-being would vaccinate those in his/her care…until you consider the over-whelming scientific evidence in favor of the process: Ever since 1796—when Edward Jenner began inoculating human beings with a bit of harmless cow pox, fooling his patients’ immune systems into marshalling their natural defenses against small pox—people and animals have, for the most part, been free of many diseases that once ravaged communities, herds and house pets.

So the question is not whether or not pets should be vaccinated, but rather which vaccinations are really needed, and how often should they be adminis-tered?

There Are Killers Among Us

We live in a complex world, and among the complexities we face is the risk of over-inoculating beloved animal companions. It’s true that some pets, like some people, are extremely sensi-tive to shots, experiencing allergic reactions and any number of other problems. In fact, there are a few dog breeds known to be prone to certain vaccinations’ adverse effects—among them, Weimaraners, Great Danes, Akitas and Standard Poodles.

At the same time, vaccinations can prevent the most dreaded illnesses to which pets are susceptible, and that’s why there are "core vaccinations" just about every vet recommends.

Rabies, a.k.a. Hydrophobia, tops the list, perhaps because it threatens not only dogs and cats, but us as well. Any warm-blooded creature can get Rabies from a bite or other contact with saliva from an infected animal.

The Rabies virus, which causes in-flammation of the brain, may take months to incubate before symptoms show, depending on how long it takes to reach the central nervous system. Then the suffering begins: weakness and raging fever; ever-increasing pain; the inability to swallow water (origin of the term "Hydrophobia"); violent, uncon-trolled movements; manic episodes; respiratory distress, coma…death within days.

Throughout the United States, laws require dogs to be regularly vaccinated against Rabies. Ideally, puppies get their first shots at about 16 weeks. (Any younger and the natural immunity they receive from antibodies in their mothers’ milk may interfere with the vaccine’s effectiveness.)

At one year dogs generally receive a Rabies "booster," although there are veterinarians who believe that the vaccine given to young animals is so effective, it affords life-long protection —much like the polio vaccinations human babies receive. Still, in compli-ance with state laws, most owners get their dogs inoculated against Rabies either every year or every three years. Considering that the disease continues to infect wild animal populations, that fact has saved countless domestic animals’ lives.

A word of caution, however: Make sure Rabies shots are administered on their own, not as part of a multiple-agent vaccine "cocktail" that may unnecess-arily overload your pet’s immune system.

Two other core vaccines veterinar-ians consider essential to a dog’s health, for Canine Distemper and Parvovirus, are often given annually. The diseases are not harmful to humans, but can be agonizing, and fatal, for dogs.

Canine Distemper virus usually appears in bronchial lymph nodes first. Once it enters the bloodstream, the ani-mal experiences a high fever, frequent-ly accompanied by low white blood-cell and platelet counts, and discharge from the nose and eyes. Around 11 or 12 days after the initial infection, there will be a second round of fever, followed by severe gastro-intestinal and respiratory distress, and inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.

Affected animals exhibit involun-tary muscle twitching and seizures, with jaw movements commonly described as "chewing gum fits," and excessive sali-vation. As the disease progresses, the seizures worsen. The victim may suffer sensitivity to light or touch, an increas-ing deterioration of motor capabilities and coordination, or convulsions that lead to death.

Dogs that survive usually have an uncontrollable tic or twitch as a result. It generally lessens in severity over time.

Parvovirus can take two basic forms: an intestinal type that causes severe vomiting and bloody diarrhea, and a cardiac type that leads to respiratory or cardiovascular failure. Dogs can be treated, but they require an intensive veterinary hospital stay. Some 91% of untreated dogs will die in terrible pain—a disturbing statistic when you consider that vaccine can prevent such suffering.

Cat Owners Have Other Concerns

In many places, cats are regarded as wild animals. No one worries about leashing or licensing them…or requiring that they be vaccinated against Rabies. Yet if you understand that disease’s dire potential, you’ll think seriously about inoculating kitties that go outdoors to insure they don’t pay too high a price for tangling with a sick wild creature, or for bringing home gruesome contaminated "gifts."

Of course, Rabies isn’t your only concern. Even cats that never go outside may contract such serious diseases as Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV) and Feline Panleukopenia (a.k.a. Feline Distemper).

There are two types of FIP: a "dry" form that causes fever and impairment of internal organs, and a "wet" form, in which a dense yellowish fluid accumulates in the abdomen and, occasionally, in the chest. By the time a cat shows signs of this viral infection, it is too late to save his life, so early vacci-nation, before any possible exposure, is a reasonable consid-eration.

FeLV, probably the most common cause of cancer in cats, severely limits their immune systems’ ability to fight off infection. Pets may not show signs of the disease during its early stages, but as time goes by, owners may notice progress-ive weight loss, recurring fevers, persistent diarrhea, infec-tions of the skin, upper respiratory and urinary tract, and various eye problems—bouts of illness often interspersed with periods of comparative health. Often it’s those secondary infections that lead to death. But, again, FeLV vaccination has been shown to effectively prevent the disease.

The term Feline Distemper has now widely been replaced by Feline Panleukopenia, which means "all white blood cells are abnormally low in numbers," because that’s what this disease does. It isn’t related to Canine Distemper, and you won’t notice a significant change in your cat’s temperament, but you will notice other signs: though feverish, he refuses water and food, vomits frequently, and has loose, bloody stools as a result of intestinal hemorrhaging. Recovery is difficult—and rare—which is why so many veterinarians recommend vaccinating kittens.

Titers & Other Alternatives

As it happens, while they may advocate those early shots for puppies and kittens, a growing number of veterinarians today question whether many of the yearly boosters routinely given to dogs and cats are necessary, or safe. There is even disagreement among veterinary institutions about "administra-tive protocols" and how long immunity lasts. So if your vet suggests annual boosters for, say, Parvovirus, and you’re uncomfortable with that, see if he/she is open to an alterna-tive: titer tests.

Titers, available for both dogs and cats, measure how much antibody to a particular virus, or antigen, is in the ani-mal’s bloodstream. If levels are satisfactory, the pet has sufficient antibodies from a previous inoculation, so further vaccination is not needed at that time. Titer tests may be inconclusive, but they give pet owners an important option.

Another option is to avoid having pets vaccinated against diseases they’re unlikely to encounter. Leptospirosis, for ex-ample, endangers animals and humans, with symptoms rang-ing from flu-like aches to life-threatening infections in the major organs. But there are, on average, only a dozen cases annually, and those occur in Texas. That means pet owners in the other 49 states need not be overly concerned.

On the other hand, people who live where there are deer, and deer ticks, may want to inoculate pets against Lyme Disease. Likewise, if Heart Worm is a concern where you live, a vaccination may save your dog from the terrible agony that parasite causes.

So Much for the Tip of the Iceberg

These are just a few of the diseases and conditions for which vaccines have been developed. But there are plenty of others that dogs and cats can catch—not to mention those we humans also share, like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and auto-immune dysfunctions. If there were inoculations to pre-vent those killers, many of us would get the shots, and annual boosters, figuring it worth the risk.

So when making a decision about pet vaccinations in general, and annual boosters in particular, do your homework. There’s a wealth of information sources on pet vaccinations available online, such as: vet.cornell.edu (the website of Cor-nell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine), www.critter advocacy.org and ThePetCenter.com. You can also consult websites for The American Veterinary Medical Association, The American Association of Feline Practitioners, Texas A&M University and Colorado State University.

Bone up on the risks of disease and vaccinations, know your pets, talk to your vet and trust his/her judgment—or find a vet you do trust!

Ellen Lovinger Eller is a staff writer for Wisdom as well as other publications, an editor, and a loving pet owner living in Shelburne Falls, MA.

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