Vaccines have been getting a lot of press lately, both in a negative light and, after the recent measles outbreaks, a positive light.
What’s the truth about vaccines anyway? Are all vaccines created equal? With so many vaccine options out there, how do you decide what to give your pet?
Just for reference, I’m not an “anti-vaxxer”, however, I do promote minimal vaccines. If vaccines were all bad and had no use we would have stopped using them. Vaccines do carry a benefit, but it is not without risk, like most interventions. The art of medicine is deciding whether the risk outweighs the benefits and how to proceed from there. Additionally, I’m a big proponent of measuring vaccine titers, or the level of antibody in the pet’s blood to a particular disease agent, to determine whether a booster vaccination is necessary or not rather than just recommending yearly or every three year boosters because that’s what the book says to do.
Vaccinating puppies and kittens is important. Parvo, distemper, feline upper respiratory disease, and feline panleukopenia all still exist and it is possible for your furkid to contract these diseases. Puppies and kittens are one of the most susceptible populations to these diseases, so I nearly always recommend doing the initial vaccine series. NEARLY always. When I talk vaccine recommendations the only thing I recommend 100% across the board is careful assessment of risk factors and consideration of which vaccines might be needed and which are definitely not a good idea.
To answer my own questions, no not all vaccines are created equally. To start with, there are different forms (modified live, killed, recombinant) each with their own levels of efficacy and risk. Other than efficacy, one of the big differences is that killed viral vaccines always contain chemical adjuvant. While vaccines can sometimes cause a problem regardless, in my experience vaccines with adjuvant cause more problems than those without. The entire point of putting these chemicals into the vaccine is to elicit a response from the body. The idea (and fact of the matter) is that injecting a little puddle of virus RNA or DNA into your cat, dog, or horse, will not be very effective as there is not a compelling reason for the immune system to show up and learn from the vaccine (a nice way of saying “have a reaction”). Because of this, adding chemicals helps to draw the body’s attention by irritating the tissues around where the viral particles have been injected. Depending on the manufacturer, modified live vaccines may also have chemical adjuvants. Whenever possible I always select vaccines that are adjuvant free. If an effective adjuvant free form of the vaccine is available, it’s just not worth the added risk of the adjuvant. So regardless of what vaccines are appropriate for your furkid’s lifestyle, simply choosing adjuvant free when possible lowers the overall risk of vaccinating significantly.
There are also multivalent “combo” vaccines and single disease agent vaccines. This is another significant way to manage risk. When I give a vaccine I try to not administer vaccines that cover more than three diseases at a time, ideally not more than one. Also, I recommend giving only one vaccine at a time and separating different vaccines by at least two weeks (ie. two weeks between when the distemper/parvo vaccine is given and when the rabies vaccine is given). This is another way to minimize risk while maximizing vaccine effectiveness. After all, if we’re going to expose our furkids to the risks of vaccination, we want to receive all the benefits.
How to decide what to give your furkid…. Well, hopefully you have a trusted holistic veterinarian you work with who can guide you on what vaccines are worth the risk for your furkids and their lifestyle. Obviously a dog who goes hiking and hunting in remote areas has very different risks than a strictly indoor only cat.
So far most of what I’ve said has been cautionary but overall positive. I do recommend vaccinations in the majority of puppy and kitten cases that I see, and I recommend revaccination in many cases where titer tests have become negative. That said, I have seen the ugly side of vaccines as well. Vaccines can cause anaphylactic reactions (like a bee sting in an allergic person), this kind of immediate, life-threatening reaction is really bad, but relatively rare. I have seen other medium time frame reactions in the 24-48 hours after vaccination as well. These are soreness and fever, sometimes lethargy, loss of appetite, or vomiting. These are also bad and cause more inflammation in the system, but are usually easy to connect to the vaccine, and we will often be much more cautious afterwards, or altogether skip future vaccinations.
The hardest reactions to deal with are the long term reactions. These happen after years of overvaccination, or even a puppy series given at inappropriate times in a sensitive individual. They can be very hard to tie to the vaccines (which is why main stream conventional medicine is so slow to accept them). These reactions range anywhere from mild, chronic skin problems, to full blown autoimmune diseases like lupus. These are precisely the reactions that we hope to avoid by adopting a minimal vaccine protocol.
The short story is, be familiar with the risks of vaccination and of not vaccinating so that you can choose which risks you are willing to take as a fur parent. Also, never vaccinate and unwell pet. Vaccines are not benign and they are intended for healthy pets only. If your pet is sick, a vaccine may, best case, not be as effective, or worst case, may cause chronic inflammation in the body’s already inflamed state.
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