8 Popular Pet Vaccination Myths

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Though not all veterinarians will agree on what’s best for pets when it comes to vaccines, I’ll go out on a limb and say that we all agree on the science behind vaccination:

Administering a tiny piece of a bug with the goal of training your immune system to prepare for a full-scale invasion is better than suffering the microorganism’s full-blown wrath. It works to prevent infection for the individual who receives the vaccine, but also protects the whole population.

It’s a basic fact. But there’s so much noise surrounding the subject of vaccination that basic facts are often ignored –– or replaced by their social media savvy “alternatives.” With that in mind, here are some pet vaccination myths you should reconsider should you come across them:

Myth #1: Veterinarians All Support Vaccine Manufacturers.

Now, I’m no vaccine manufacturer marketer or apologist but I do believe I’ve little choice but to vaccinate my patients and my own pets against diseases common to our area’s population of animals, as well as against diseases humans might suffer severely from should they contract them from our pets.

In fact, as both veterinarians and pet owner, I believe it’s unethical not to do so, regardless of what you may think of vaccine manufacturers. After all, we may have a voice in how manufacturers do their business (and I lobby them hard to improve their products), but we ultimately have little choice in the products available to us at the moment we need them.

Myth #2: Vaccines Only Help Vaccinated Pets.

The beauty of vaccination is that once a critical mass of a population has received the vaccine, the vaccine is protective even for those who haven’t received it. Like a fire with breaks in the forest, the disease can’t rage unchecked if a core group of the population stands protected.

Trouble is, not all of us agree that a) vaccines are as safe as manufacturers claim they are (many manufacturers’ lack of transparency hasn’t helped this belief any) and b) their pets should be among the core group of vaccinated animals. Better they should benefit without exposing them to even the most minuscule risk of a vaccine reaction. This latter mindset is especially problematic seeing as it seems egregiously self-serving and cowardly.

Myth #3: Veterinarians Over-Vaccinate.

According to this lore, we veterinarians vaccinate based on what we’ve always done, what makes us most money, and on what the law requires –– not on what’s best for pets. Now, I’m not saying there aren’t some bad actors out there, but this characterization is simply not true.

Most veterinarians adhere to science-based guidelines when it comes to vaccinating pets. The most popular of these are the AAHA vaccination guidelines for dogs and the AAFP guidelines for cats. In case you believe your veterinarian is over-vaccinating, research these online for yourself so you’re aware of what veterinary science says your pet needs.

Myth #4: There’s One Set Way of Vaccinating All Pets.

“Core” vaccines are those for diseases common enough to warrant their recommendation for all pets. “Non-core” vaccines are those reserved for pets whose lifestyle or geographic location presents a unique risk. Your pets may never require non-core vaccines. For example, indoor-exclusive cats may never need to be vaccinated against the feline leukemia virus.

Note: Not all veterinarians agree on who’s at risk for which diseases. This always comes down to a discussion between you and your vet. No matter what, be sure your pet’s vaccine protocol is customized to meet her individual risk.

Myth #5: Vaccines Are All Required Annually.

According to vaccine manufacturers and all common guidelines, “core” vaccines should be administered only every three years (or even less often in some cases). “Non-core” vaccines are typically dosed annually.

Myth #6: Small Dogs Get Smaller Doses of Vaccines.

The assumption here is that a tiny Chihuahua needs only half a dose of vaccine. Interestingly, this hasn’t been proven as effective (or any safer) than a full dose of vaccine. The idea is that the dose is already so small that body size matters very little in the face of something already so microscopic.

Myth #7: Blood Tests Can Be Used In Place of Vaccination.

After an initial series of vaccines, some veterinarians prefer to test their patients for the presence of protective antibodies (“titers”) against the disease in question. Though controversial, this approach does have a basis in science. As such, it’s often employed in lieu of common vaccines like distemper and parvovirus, for which titer testing is readily available.

This approach does, however, require that an initial series of vaccines be administered. Moreover, it’s not available for most vaccines.

Myth #8: Thimerosal-Free Vaccines Save Pets From Autism And Other Vaccine Reactions.

Thimerosal is a mercury-containing preservative once linked to autism in children. After exhaustive research on this fraught subject, however, there’s been no evidence that thimerosal leads to vaccine reactions in people (and presumably in pets either). Yet one vaccine manufacturer goes out of its way to charge way more for its thimerosal-free rabies vaccine… because it knows some pet owners are willing to pay triple for the privilege.

I’m a big fan of reduced vaccine frequency and of titer testing in lieu of vaccination but, overall, vaccination is one area in veterinary medicine where the rewards –– for your pets as well as for your entire family –– far outweigh the risks. Stick to the science, I say. It’s way safer and a lot less expensive in the long run.