When You Don’t Vaccinate, You Put Everyone’s Pets at Risk

“Anti-vaxxers” contributed to the recent Disney measles outbreak. When we all choose even the minimum vaccines, we save lives — people and pets.

Vaccines have helped keep both people and pets alive. By: philhearing
Vaccines have helped keep both people and pets alive. By: philhearing

Vaccines save lives. They have changed the face of contagious disease like almost no other modern medical discovery.

All animals and humans deserve to benefit from the protective power of vaccination when they are at risk for contracting a serious or fatal disease.

When significant numbers in a population stop vaccinating, outbreaks of the disease occur and put the entire population, specifically the most frail members of the group, at risk.

This is what happened recently in Disneyland with the measles outbreak. When parents — as well as people who have pets — decide that the possible risk of a vaccine or vaccine reaction is not worth vaccinating, we lose herd immunity. There is a resurgence of the disease and, with enough cases circulating, even vaccinated individuals are at risk.

Many anti-vaxxers have chosen that the comfort and “wellness” of their own personal little orbitron, be it a little boy, a little Bichon, or a little Burmese, comes first and the orbit stops there. If their little precious might have a vaccine reaction, then they will do without the vaccine.

More Benefits Than Harm

Similar to parents not wanting to vaccinate kids, more and more of my clients, particularly younger people, are leery of vaccines as “dangerous” to their pet.

It is true that every vaccine carries a low potential to cause a reaction, most mild but some serious. This is why I advocate the minimum of vaccines to my clients, use the safest vaccines available and discuss risks versus benefits when tailoring a vaccine schedule for every pet.

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Without our modern vaccines, however, people would still think it commonplace for a new puppy to die a horrific death from distemper, or a child to become deathly ill from measles. My worry is that many people under the age of, say, 50 probably don’t have much first- or second-hand experience with the diseases that are now largely controlled or eradicated thanks to modern vaccines.

The risk and seriousness may seem so “20th century” to many folks.

Being a child of the 1950s, I just missed the boat on the MMR vaccine, so I suffered through measles, mumps, chicken pox and rubella. My aunt lost a pregnancy during a rubella outbreak. My parents spoke of childhood friends with polio and TB. Vaccines changed the world outlook for that generation, and I think we’ve lost a bit of that appropriate respect.

Oh, forget about my own intense suffering as a child. The mumps were pretty gross. Black goo slimed all over my neck. I wonder what that stuff was? I have lots of good scars from the chicken pox because I threw the bottle of calamine lotion at my grandmother when she tried to paint my forehead for the umpteenth time.

But other children got much sicker. The older childhood vaccines have saved countless lives and suffering by largely eradicating diptheria, pertussis and tetanus.

Improvements for Animals

As for animals, we really don’t consider canine and feline distemper or rabies real threats because these diseases are all but eradicated, thanks to the power of vaccination.

But back in the 1930s, my family tells an awful tale of watching a new sheltie puppy die a horrible death from distemper. I lived through the parvo outbreaks in the 1980s when we lost more puppies than we saved. The parvo ward was full of pups dying of dehydration despite aggressive treatment.

Likewise, when I began practicing, just about every sick-looking cat who came in to the hospital had a high possibility of having feline leukemia. Now I maybe diagnose a positive cat once every 5 or 6 months. The feline leukemia vaccine has changed the world of cat medicine, and feline distemper is almost never seen.

If we stop vaccinating, these diseases will re-emerge or become more prevalent.

Last summer, there was a parvo outbreak in a nearby community, and there was lots of local media coverage scaring people with pets. My phone was ringing off the hook. “Are you sure Frodo is up to date on parvo?” “When did Wiggins get his last parvo vaccine?”

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Talk With Your Vet

If it takes an outbreak to reignite people’s respect for judicious vaccination protocols, so be it. I hope your veterinarian discusses the pros and cons and risks versus benefits with you.

With any luck, by vaccinating much less frequently than in the past, by checking vaccine titers if warranted, and by giving only essential vaccines to pets based on their lifestyle, veterinarians might lose the rap that the profession “over-vaccinates.”

We should vaccinate to protect the lives of our own pets, but also to keep the entire pet population at large safe from deadly diseases.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Feb. 11, 2015.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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