Vet Talk

Take the Responsibility for Vaccinating

Old Yeller wouldn't have died if he'd gotten his rabies shots

Published: August 12, 2019
Dr. Mueller's Macie is appropriately vaccinated. Photo courtesy of Dr. Nathan Mueller

As a student in vet school, I was required to be vaccinated for rabies with pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) shots — a vaccine given because veterinarians have a higher risk of exposure to rabies when seeing sick animals. It’s a good thing, too! If you’ve already seen or read Old Yeller, you know what happens when animals are rabid (Hint: They die). The rabies virus is found in animals’ saliva so veterinarians can be exposed not only from animal bites but also upon touching saliva when opening the mouth or being drooled on. I admit that the whole rabies vaccination process was mildly annoying, but I don’t regret it one bit since rabies is fatal if appropriate treatment is delayed or not given after someone is exposed!

The rabies vaccines are no longer the painful, long series of shots into the tummy anymore. It is now a series of three injections with one given every several weeks. The first shot was given in my upper arm, followed by one in my other arm, and the last one in the first arm. Those injections were hands down the most painful of any I’ve ever received. For days (maybe weeks afterward) it ached, even with just lifting my arm in an upward motion.

Several years later, as I was completing my clinical training, a gigantic Hereford bull stumbled in to the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.  He couldn’t balance or walk very well on his hind legs. He died and turned out to have rabies; I can’t imagine removing that head! Thankfully, every precaution was taken to keep everyone (human and animal) safe and that included those painful rabies shots.

Over the years, knowing that I had been vaccinated for rabies allowed me to practice with peace of mind. I didn’t have to run screaming down the hall every time a dog licked or drooled on me, to say nothing of the worrying about rabies when I got bitten (a not un-frequent occurrence in veterinary clinics.)

Vaccinations have always been commonplace to me. I started with helping my father give tetanus vaccinations to baby lambs on our farm, making sure the new breeding heifers had their calfhood shots, and later on providing routine puppy and kitten vaccinations. Vaccines promote health in individuals and populations. We call this herd immunity.

I trust that the majority of people who support the anti-vaccination movement are ordinary folks who don’t actually mean harm by perpetuating misinformation that can have detrimental effects for humans and animals. The fact is, people who promote this need to be aware that failure to vaccinate is harmful to pets AND people. In a good faith effort to protect their children and pets from vaccine reactions, they unintentionally create harm. Look at this year’s outbreaks of measles that started among kids whose parents chose not to vaccinate them. Even though measles was declared eliminated in 2000, it does still exist and is as nasty as it ever was. One out of five unvaccinated people who get measles end up in the hospital.

A reaction to a vaccine is similar to an adverse reaction to anything else. The reaction is a negative response that the body (human and animal alike) has to one or more of the substances in a vaccine; it’s a reaction to foreign invasion. There are also penicillin reactions, reactions to anesthetic drugs used in surgery, and reactions to common substances, such as food and water to name a few. The list of reactions to substances of all kinds continues “To infinity and beyond!” There are some cats who are allergic to dogs, and vice versa. Furthermore, a few pets are allergic to certain types of plastic food and water bowls, or even to their own humans (owners)! A common reason for dogs or cats to be itchy is flea allergy dermatitis, which is a reaction to the saliva a flea injects with every bite. (I know: ewwww!)

Of course, vaccines are not perfect; we’re constantly striving to make them better. It would be nice if we could predict which individuals might be sensitive to vaccinations or which vaccine might cause an allergic response before they’re given. It would allow us to carefully tailor the vaccines given to each patient. Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.

The myth that linked childhood vaccines to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been debunked and serious vaccine reactions in humans are very rare. The risk of not vaccinating your pet, your child, or yourself leaves you susceptible to nasty yet preventable diseases. Sorting through the information can be confusing. There’s always going to be bad advice or inaccurate information out there, so it’s never a bad idea to consider the quality of the information sources. Are you learning from the CDC's website, a university website, your medical doctor, your local veterinary clinic, or from a guy who sells tonic water as a cure-all?

For those people who have a history of a severe vaccine reaction, the CDC states that the vaccine believed to have caused the reaction should not be given again. The fact that there are people and animals who cannot tolerate vaccines makes it so much more important for those who can tolerate vaccines to stay up-to-date as this strengthens the population-wide immunity.  If we focus solely on the instances of reactions, and not on the benefit of population immunization, we lose our much needed herd immunity.

There are a lot of differences between types of reactions. Most of the time, reactions to vaccines are going to be minor, with muscle soreness, lethargy, and mild fever which are considered normal. If your pet vomits or has difficulty breathing after vaccinations, call your veterinarian and tell them you think that your pet is having an allergic reaction.

How do we handle future vaccines for animals with a prior vaccine reaction? First and foremost, have a thorough discussion with your veterinarian concerning each and every vaccine before deciding to vaccinate as some pet vaccines are more prone to causing reactions than others. Since multiple vaccines combined into one injection are often given to pets, it might be best for at-risk patients to skip some vaccines (depending on where they live or their lifestyle of indoor or outdoor pet), or for some vaccines to be given individually. Some animals may need to have a preventive medicaiton given prior to vaccination, in addition to close monitoring after vaccination. More good advice on preventing vaccine reactions in known reactors can be found at Veterinary Partner.

If you’re still convinced that the safest route is to forego vaccinations for yourself, your children, or your pets, then you should probably also reconsider driving. The CDC says that more than 32,000 people are killed and 2 million are injured each year due to vehicle crashes in America; that’s 90 people a day! Those accident numbers are far beyond any values for human vaccine reactions.

Keep in mind, it wasn’t a vaccine reaction that killed the cat, it was curiosity, and Old Yeller wouldn’t have died if he had gotten his rabies vaccine. Getting everyone in your family, two- and four-legged, appropriately vaccinated for their age and geographic area is part of being a responsible member of society.

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