hound-437532_640By Stewart Ketcham, DVM

Why should I immunize my pet?
I don’t immunize my children!

Pet owners have actually said this to me in the exam room in my office! The human measles outbreak in California earlier this year, and the subsequent controversy and discussions, are now the basis for my reply.

I’m sick as a dog, with this cough and a sneeze
When trying to bark it comes out like a wheeze.
At the dog park I noticed that hound with a “Hack”
Oh goodness, could it be that “Distemper” is back?
My tummy has gurgles, I’m sick at both ends
Between bed and the cat box, can’t play with my friends.
My mom said no to the shots, ‘cause needles I hate,
Now I wish she’d said to the vet, “Yes please, vaccinate!”

The trend away from wellness preventive immunizations is not confined to human pediatrics. Sadly, in recent years veterinarians are seeing the same trend: more pet owners fail to complete kitten or puppy vaccines, and skip wellness visits for their adult pets as well. For some, the issue is budget priorities (car, cell phone, etc.), and for others there is a vague impression that “vaccines don’t really matter.”

You may be asking, “What is the connection between the human Measles outbreak in Disneyland last winter and Canine Distemper in my dog”? The answer is, “A LOT!” Both viruses are in the same genus (Morbillivirus), they are both highly contagious, and they both survive in the environment (In body secretions spread by cough, sneeze [for both] and vomit and stool [for distemper]). Both viruses can lead to life-threatening complications, including pneumonia, diarrhea, and encephalitis (brain inflammation). In fact it is believed that Canine Distemper is the most likely origin of human Measles [Fiennes R. Zoonoses and the Origins and Ecology of Human Disease. Academic Press. London ( 1978)].

Cats also have highly contagious diseases. Feline Distemper is actually a very different virus than the dog version. Yet it is equally serious and potentially fatal. It is actually a “Parvovirus” and is thought to be the origin of Canine Parvovirus which is now a part of the “4 way Distemper Shot for dogs.” The cat respiratory viruses include a “Feline Herpes virus,” which is fairly commonly passed from mother cat to kitten. It can have eye or brain complications.

Rabies vaccinations are required by law in both NH and VT. That’s because the disease is ALWAYS fatal (with one case on record of a human survivor after developing symptoms in 2004). It can be spread to pets from wild animals, and then to their humans. It is 100% preventable by vaccination.

Q: Why is there so much talk about “Herd Immunity”? I thought herds were for cows and horses, not dogs and people!
A: Herd Immunity refers to a concept: “When most of a population has immunity against a contagious disease, the “unprotected” members of that “herd” are also protected because the disease cannot effectively spread through the population.” For most diseases 85-95% of the “herd” needs to have immunity for the others to benefit.

Q: So if most dogs are vaccinated, why do I need to vaccinate my dog?
A#1: One of the issues here is that for canine distemper the “herd” (population which carries or can get the disease) in this area includes: foxes, coyotes and raccoons [possibly mink, weasels & bears]. We know wildlife are not vaccinated and they walk through our back yards, the dog park and the popular hiking and recreation paths. Combine that with dogs whose owners skip vaccines and the 85-95% level of protected members of the herd is not reached.
A#2: Distemper vaccines are highly effective, but they are not 100% protective–actually about 71% retained “significant antibody titers from annual vaccination.” [2011 study in Japan]. Of course some of those individuals with a “less than significant titer” will get partial protection.
A#3: There are some individuals (pet, animal and human) who are immune suppressed (by medications for certain diseases or because of organ transplant) or by certain diseases or infections (HIV in people, FelV/FIV in cats). Generally these individuals should not be vaccinated!

Ask yourself the following and your heart will find the answer:
• How would I feel if my child gave measles to his/her friend who was HIV positive and that child died?
• How would I feel if my unvaccinated pet gave a serious (potentially fatal) illness to my friend’s pet who couldn’t be vaccinated?
• How would I feel if my pet acquired a serious (potentially fatal) illness because I skipped vaccines.

Q: There are so many vaccines recommended for my dog or cat, how do I know which ones they need?
A#1: Your veterinarian should discuss vaccine recommendations based on the lifestyle of your pet (indoor, outdoor, woods, fields, boarding kennel, dog park, travel, etc.) and the risk of exposure to various diseases as a result. They can also discuss the risks & potential side effects of each vaccine.
A#2: For more information see the websites for the American Veterinary Medicine Society (search: avma vaccine guidelines) or the American Association of Feline Practitioners (search: feline practitioners guidelines).

Dr. Ketcham is the owner of Upper Valley Veterinary Services and Animal Clinic of Enfield. He is a 1970 graduate of Cornell Veterinary College. He says, “I’m lucky to be working at something which brings me daily pleasure and in a branch of medicine where it’s OK for patients to kiss the doctor.”