The great debate: Vaccinate?

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All animal guardians are familiar with those little reminder cards from the vet when it’s time for check-ups and vaccinations. But the recent controversy over whether vaccinations contribute to autism in children (plus a host of other possible side effects), have some questioning whether yearly boosters are necessary or even safe for their pets.

After discussing the matter with her vet, Joan Fletcher of Portland, OR decided to forego additional boosters for her aging dog, Kona. “I opted out of vaccinations when Kona got older. His vet and I concluded that with over a decade of regularly scheduled vaccinations, he would live booster free for the last several years of his life.”

This attitude is supported by an increasing number of veterinarians as vaccines become more efficient and longer lasting (many of today's vaccines for core diseases such as parvo and distemper have a protection rate of up to three years). Dr. Jean Dodds, a doctor of veterinary medicine since 1964 and board member of the American Holistic Medical Association, says, “It's perfectly appropriate if a dog or a cat has been properly vaccinated as a kitten or puppy to give a booster periodically — maybe once when they’re an adult and then maybe in midlife, and then not vaccinated at all after that.”

While this conclusion may seem to buck the norm, increasing numbers of veterinarians and their clients are coming to similar conclusions. Dr. Christine Ortner, Diplomate ABVP has been practicing veterinary medicine in Oregon since 1995 and is a board-certified specialist in canine and feline practices. She works at Cascade Summit Animal Hospital in West Linn, OR. When asked how often she discusses vaccinations with her clients, her response was immediate. “All the time. A lot of people who come into our office are moms. I think the concern with vaccines and children has spilled over into veterinary medicine and what vaccines could possibly do to their animals.”

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Such concerns primarily focus on potential side effects from over-vaccinating. According to Dr. Dodds, these can include everything from blood and liver disease to seizures, chronic gastrointestinal issues or arthritis. Additionally, the immune systems of older animals, and those already compromised, are further taxed by unnecessary vaccinations. “Every time you give a booster you suppress the immunity for the next 10 to 14 days,” says Dodds. “Why do it if they don't need it?”

Dr. Ortner agrees, particularly in the case of animals with allergies. “Every time we give a vaccine we’re exciting the immune system which can make their allergies worse.”

While Ortner concedes that there is no proof to that theory, it has been a concern among professionals in her field. “Even our board-certified dermatologist who treats our clients’ pets asks that they not get vaccinated when their allergies are bad. If they have any kind of concurrent infection, allergy or other health problem, we prefer not to vaccinate.”

Over- or unnecessary vaccination also brings up the question of the animal’s lifestyle. For example, why subject an animal that never leaves the family home to vaccination for Lyme’s disease? “We have to be careful to not over-vaccinate for diseases we don’t see,” says Dr. Dodds. “Like kennel cough. The stuff with kennel cough is totally overblown. Totally. And those vaccines are not 100 percent efficacious, I mean it’s a little bit of a cough. Children with a cough still go to day care.”

The same goes for canine influenza, Dodds says. “This is not a disease of a well-cared for, well-nourished animal. It’s a disease of over-crowded shelters. Animals are going to be exposed all the time. Do they need to be vaccinated more? No! Because they’re exposed they’re going to be less likely to get sick because they’re having their immunity boosted all the time by natural exposure.”

So why are veterinarians still sending out those annual reminders? Part of the answer may lie in the lack of standards for animal vaccinations. Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM and author of the book Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, states in an article for the American Animal Hospital Association, “Other than for rabies (state mandated), vaccination protocols are anything but standardized. There are no set rules veterinarians must follow when determining which vaccines to give and how often they are administered. Unfortunately, some vets continue to vaccinate for distemper and parvovirus annually even though we know that these adult vaccines provide protection for a minimum of three years.”


So where does that leave pet parents who want to safeguard their pet against disease but not cause unnecessary harm in the process? As with most medical concerns, knowledge is key. Study reputable sources and talk with your veterinarian about your pet’s actual vaccination needs. Dr. Dodds says these discussions are necessary for both the welfare of the animal and the client’s education.

“Antibodies to vaccines in animals capable of mounting immunity – which 99 percent of animals are — are good for life. There’s no reason to keep giving boosters. The only reason we give them is they get reminders from veterinarians to come get your booster vaccinations because the veterinary profession has not learned yet to separate vaccinations from people seeing them.

What we have to do is separate the annual wellness checkup from the automatic assumption of booster vaccinations by saying something like, ‘wellness exam and vaccine update.’ An update may just mean reviewing where we are and whether the animal needs anything or not. It doesn’t have to be a vaccination.”

Pet owners may also consider testing for prevention, through methods such as the titer test, also known as vaccine serology testing. Dr. Ortner often discusses titers with clients and says about half choose the titer over vaccination.

A titer test examines the types of anti-bodies an animal has against certain types of disease. For example, if your dog has been regularly vaccinated for distemper, he may have enough of the vaccine in his system to last several years, eliminating the need for more.

“They’re the best lab test that we have,” says Ortner. “I’ve been titering my own dogs for the last seven years. It’s interesting because some animals will have a negative titer just one year after a vaccine because their immune system just does not respond that strongly, while other dogs will have a positive titer for seven years in a row and not need a vaccine.”

While titers offer one solution to over-vaccinating, Ortner strongly cautions against going to extremes and not vaccinating at all — especially when pets are young.

“Vaccines are definitely important,” says Ortner. “They have their place to protect your pet, the family and community. We take for granted that we can walk down the street and not be afraid of rabid dogs.

Today the leptovirus is on the rise, and I have to say that vaccine is now very clean. I don’t see leptovirus vaccine reactions like in the old days. And, distemper is still out there, so at least always vaccinate them through their puppy and kitten series. You’ve got to vaccinate them through their puppyhood and at least through their first adult annual, and then start considering options.”

Herbalist Sonja Boynton, who specializes in holistic care for pets, tells her clients — especially recent adopters of shelter animals (often necessarily vaccinated with a whole cocktail of vaccines) — that there are ways to strengthen the immune system through herbal remedies that also help keep pets strong between vaccinations.

Keeping animals healthy with plenty of exercise and nutritious food also supports the immune system, naturally fighting disease and possibly lengthening a vaccine’s efficacy.

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Joan with Kona“The thing about the immune system is that it’s fantastic,” says Boynton. “Vaccinations, especially in the amounts given to some pets all at once, can turn the immune system into a panic. It’s best to spread out vaccinations if you can and offer immune-strengthening herbs and homeopathic remedies to shore up the immune system in the intermediary period following a vaccine course. And of course, pay attention to diet. I advocate for raw diet, raw diet, raw diet. Remember that 70 percent of immunity is in the gut, so attention must be paid to keeping that system as healthy as possible.”

Boynton is passionate about reducing the number of vaccinations companion animals receive but, like Dr. Ortner, cautions against forgoing them all together.

“I’ve heard people who don’t want to vaccinate and I tell them ‘please don't throw the baby out with the bath water.’ Rabies is real. Distemper is real. Parvo is real. And, yes: you can provide holistic remedies for these and in some cases provide cures, but you’d better be prepared to give up your day job and everything else you're doing simply to fight these diseases holistically. Even then, you are looking at a 50/50 success rate at best.”

Taking the necessary steps to ensure your pet is properly vaccinated during her youth and young adulthood may be all she needs for a long, healthy life. If you’re concerned about the frequency and kinds of vaccinations your pet receives during annual checkups, make an appointment to talk to your veterinarian and discuss your concerns before that reminder card arrives in the mail.


Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM

Dr. Christine Ortner, Diplomate ABVP

Dr. W. Jean Dodds, DVM

Herbalist Sonja Boynton

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Nikki Jardin is a Portland-based freelance writer who loves to write about people dedicated to making the world a better place for all beings. When she’s not writing, she’s either exploring the great outdoors, traveling, or volunteering with Fences For Fido, a local nonprofit dedicated to giving dogs freedom from a previously chained life.