If Rodney Habib had kids, he said he would “probably” vaccinate them. But he refuses to vaccinate his three dogs.
“Giving your dog or cat so many shots can harm them and probably does nothing for them anyway,” said the 39-year-old blogger, pet supply retailer and owner of Sammie, Reggie and Shubie.
Habib is among a growing number of pet owners who think routine immunizations do more harm than good. He said he gave his brood “core vaccinations” against parvovirus, distemper, hepatitis and rabies when they were pups. But he maintains that the animals will retain their immunity for years – possibly even for life.
Booster shots, Habib argues, expose pets to the same pathogens time and time again, raising the risk for immune disorders like allergies, infections and cancer.
Not so, according to Dr. Kate Berger, a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Citing large, long-term studies in both dogs and cats, Berger said adverse reactions to vaccines are exceedingly rare and usually quite mild.
“Abnormal responses occur so infrequently, and more unvaccinated animals die from the diseases the vaccines prevent, that the benefit of vaccination outweighs the minimal risk of the abnormal immune response,” Berger said.
The American Animal Hospital Association and most other large veterinary medicine groups recommend giving core vaccines once every three years to maintain a minimum threshold of disease-fighting antibodies.
“We need as many dogs and cats vaccinated as possible to build up a herd immunity against diseases,” said Dr. Michael Cavanaugh, chief executive officer of the American Animal Hospital Association, referring to the theory that a critical mass of vaccinated animals will help protect those that aren’t vaccinated.
The shots also protect people from diseases like rabies, which are transmitted through animal bites, Cavanaugh said.
But some pet anti-vaxxers say vets who recommend routine immunizations are putting profits before pet safety. Dana Scott, publisher of Dogs Naturally Magazine and owner of seven Labrador Retrievers, maintains that vaccines are a money-maker for vets and drug makers and a considerable expense for owners.
Core shots for a dog cost an average of $80 at most PETCOs for the initial round plus $60 a year for boosters. Optional seasonal protection against flu, Lyme disease and kennel cough – the dog version of whooping cough – run between $10 and $50 apiece.
“If vaccines were really so important, coyotes would have dropped dead years ago,” Scott reasoned.
Indeed, some studies suggest certain vaccines can provide immunity against a disease for up to seven years – but not for every animal in every circumstance. The vaccination schedule for each pet should be based on factors such as age, size, health and lifestyle, according to Berger. Pets that spend a lot of time in doggie parks, daycare and kennels should probably vaccinated more often, she said.
Habib has heard all the arguments for the importance of vaccines but remains unmoved, he said. He gets his dogs their rabies shots, but only because they’re required by law. He said he foregoes the remaining core vaccines and opts instead for titer tests – blood tests that measure the level of antibodies the dogs have against various pathogens. Titer tests can serve as proof of an animal’s natural immunity or immunity retained from previous vaccinations.
Cavanaugh said that titer tests are safe and effective, but stressed that vaccines are, too. He also pointed out that titer tests need to be repeated every one to three years and can cost up to four times as much as vaccines.
But Habib said he thinks it’s worth the cost. He said his anti-vax opinions are based on discussions with veterinarians and animal immunologists, and stressed that if he ever has kids, he’ll ask a lot of questions before deciding on a vaccine schedule that he considers necessary and safe.
“Animal or human, you want to be fully informed before you give a vaccine,” he said.