Recently it has become more common for owners to request that veterinarians write letters for various public health agencies or businesses stating their pets are too old, frail, or ill to receive vaccines. The reasons vary from a presumed fear that vaccines can cause problems or exacerbate existing problems to skepticism about disease risk to presumed parallels of reports of human side effects to vaccines.
The hope is that these letters will prevent exclusion from services such as air travel, boarding and day care, grooming, and most importantly, licensing, despite the lack of vaccinations. What is interesting about this phenomenon is that it is increasing despite the fact that vaccination protocols in pets are commonly every three years instead of the old yearly protocols.
The Legal Right to Opt Out of Vaccinations
There is no legal requirement for pets to be vaccinated for diseases that protect their health. Vaccines that help prevent the common well known infectious diseases of cats and dogs were all developed to improve the health of pets and reduce the contagion of these major diseases.
Because pets are considered property, it is the owners’ right to determine the level of health protection they wish for their pets, and they are free to choose which vaccines they want or whether to vaccinate at all. It is also the right of any business, even veterinary hospitals, to deny services to unvaccinated animals in order to protect the health of other pets and patients. More and more pediatricians are denying service to parents that have opted out of vaccines for their children. These doctors fear potential waiting-room contagion in other yet-to-be vaccinated children or those that may have yet to develop full immunity.
Immunity is not necessarily established after one or two sets of vaccines (also a subject for a future blog) in humans or pets. Also, many diseases in humans and pets are on the rise again due to parents and pet owners opting out of vaccinations against these diseases.
All veterinarians agree that there are occasions when vaccines can be delayed until a pet’s condition is resolved or improved. But absolving an animal from all future vaccinations simply because it is has a chronic condition or is old is questionable. There is no hard, universal evidence that vaccinations are detrimental to these animals or that they will cause disease or cancer. In fact, unvaccinated infirm or geriatric animals may be at higher risk if exposed to contagious diseases.
Vaccine reactions most commonly occur in younger pets, not in older, ill pets. Animals that have had previous allergic episodes can generally be pretreated with medication to prevent or minimize vaccine reactions. With the exception of previous, vaccine-specific anaphylactic reactions (life-threating systemic failure), opt out letters are not appropriate for animals with a history of allergic vaccine reactions.
Rabies and Pet Licensing
Rabies vaccines are not given to pets to protect the animal, they are given to protect humans. Public health departments, the agencies that determine rabies vaccine protocols, are only concerned about the welfare of humans, hence all of the regulations regarding rabies vaccines, especially in dogs. These regulations are not without reason. With the exception of three children in recent years, rabies is always fatal once a human begins to display symptoms. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports 55,000 annual deaths worldwide due to rabies and 1-2 deaths annually in the U.S. Skunks and bats are the leading vectors of rabies in the U.S. In some areas fox and coyotes are also a threat. Because many states classify cats as wanderers they are not subject to public health laws related to rabies except in individual jurisdictions. This short story will demonstrate why this is a problem.
I have always required that my patients have a current rabies vaccine in order to protect my staff, in case they are bitten by an uncooperative pet. I had a client who insisted that she would not comply and I politely refused her further veterinary services. Two years later she came back to the practice somewhat apologetic. It happened that a bat flew into her apartment and bit her two unvaccinated cats. The bat was found to be rabid. The cats were immediately vaccinated and all turned out well. What might have happened if the bat had escaped without her knowing that it bit the cats?
There is no evidence that a rabies vaccine every three years will harm older or chronically ill pets. Research indicating the association of vaccines, particularly rabies vaccines, and fibrosarcoma in cats has yet to prove a cause and effect.
With rare exceptions, opt out letters are not appropriate for rabies vaccines.
Dr. Ken Tudor