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If You Give a Vet a Soapbox… My Response to the Anti-Vaccine Movement

By Kim Everson, DVM
Moments ago I finished — with a dramatic flourish — an e-mail response to a very good client whose insightful questions about his pets constantly keep me on my toes. What started as a quick note developed into a lengthy and impassioned epistle. I found myself so wound up by the time I hit “Send” that I couldn’t help but expound my point of view to anyone who would listen. Dear reader, that may be you if you choose to continue.


Hey Dr. Kim,

Not sure if you saw the attached article or not. It was a good read I think, and thought you may find it interesting. All is well with Puppy. We will see you in a few weeks for another check up with him. Hope your weekend was well! 


Puppy Owner

Subject: puppy vaccinations

I found this link that may be of interest to you now that your puppies have just received their second shot. This is a very important read, for you to discuss with your vet.

The puppies will be ready for their rabies shot in a couple weeks but according to this article which has some very strong articles to support, there is no need for anything more than rabies this year.

Know that I gave the parvo/distemper shot to them at home at 7 1/2 weeks old. There were not exposed at the vet’s office. This is the safest way/time to give a vax not knowing what all the puppies would be exposed to as they went to their new homes….

Kindest regards~
Puppy Breeders

Dear Puppy Owner:

I’m glad you sent the article. I could read on this subject for hours, clicking links to this and that!

So much of the article is correct. As I read it, though, I felt myself waiting for the author to complete a train of scientific thought as I learned in immunology training [the study of the immune system]. And when they didn’t I realized it must be because the omitted part would actually lessen the effectiveness of their argument. There are so many points in the article where I wanted to shout “But that’s not the whole story! You forgot about individual variation or herd health medicine or maternal antibody variability or compliance or practicality, economics and human fallibility!” 

People mistakenly believe the practice of immunology in human and veterinary medicine is done in favor of the individual. Vaccination critics believe an individual’s risk outweighs the public’s benefit. But the cold hard truth is immunizations are not done solely for the best interest of the patient but for the public interest.


A dog is not vaccinated against rabies to protect him from dying of rabies (although he indeed benefits in this way). A dog is vaccinated against rabies to create a barrier of protection to the human population from rabid domestic animals. If animals who interact closely with the human population (such as dogs) cannot contract and pass the rabies virus, then fewer humans will die of rabies. That is the goal of rabies vaccination in pets. A corollary argument is that a dog vaccinated against parvovirus (or distemper, etc.) helps protect the whole population of dogs from parvovirus. Just as parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are relying on “herd immunity” (i.e., the fact that the U.S. population is well vaccinated against certain deadly illnesses) to protect their unvaccinated children, pet owners who do not vaccinate have relatively “protected” pets because the animals they interact with are vaccinated and cannot pass on disease.

I could write a dissertation in response to the arguments laid out in the article! But I do want to point out two things regarding the Breeder’s e-mail and how it relates to Puppy:
1) Puppy Breeder’s email says the pups were vaccinated against parvo/distemper at 7-1/2 weeks and do not need any further shots besides rabies. This statement does not even agree with the article much less current standard of practice. The article says a single vaccine at 12 weeks is sufficient, not one prior to 8 weeks of age. 
2) Dr. Ron Schultz’s research is quoted extensively in the article in support of vaccinating only once at 12 weeks. Dr. Schultz was my immunology professor at UW School of Veterinary Medicine. [I am a 2007 DVM graduate.] We were taught to make sure the final “distemper” vaccine was given at or after 16 weeks (not 12). 

There are many scientifically proven reasons for boostering more than once in puppies. There are different types of immunity and boostering increases long term “memory” in the immune system. Also, maternal antibodies interfere with vaccination in puppies. That’s why puppies (and babies) receive a series of vaccines. The reason we do not wait until 12-16 weeks is because we cannot be sure a) whether the mother was properly vaccinated and b) whether the puppy/baby received enough immunoglobulins through first milk colostrum (a bigger risk in large litters where pups fight for resources). 

Over-vaccination is a real concern, but I do believe in the societal and clinical benefits of vaccinating my pets as well as my children. Some vets (as indicated in the article) recommend annual vaccination for everything, but this method of practice is changing. Dr. Schultz taught us that many pets have more than 1 year (and even more than 3 years) of protection from vaccination, it’s true. Many viral vaccines are FDA licensed for administration every 3 years. Until new research and licensing shows protection for a majority of animals beyond 3 years, most vets will vaccinate every 3 years for rabies and “distemper.” Yes, you can have antibody levels tested for parvovirus or distemper virus and choose not to vaccinate if levels remain high. However, this is not commonly done because the serology test is not inexpensive. 

Some types of vaccines (for bacterial diseases such as Lyme, Leptospirosis and Bordetella) do NOT provide proven protection much beyond one year. In fact, Bordetella is sometimes given every 6 months to dogs at high risk for Kennel Cough because the body does not make the same long lasting immunological response to bacterial diseases as it does to viral disease. (This probably explains the recent Whooping Cough outbreaks in humans…Whooping Cough is related to Kennel Cough; both are caused by Bordetella organisms!!! As children we receive the “Pertussis” vaccine but lose protection over time and may become susceptible as teenagers or adults.) The canine vaccines I just mentioned are lifestyle vaccines. Not all dogs should or do receive them.

Whew. I’m exhausted. This is such an emotional topic from either side! I find it interesting that the same diseases “anti-vaccine people” claim stem from vaccination in this article are the same diseases “anti-grain pet food people” claim stem from commercial diets. It would be foolhardy of me to say any of these claims are complete nonsense! There is so much we do not fully understand of the intricate workings of the body and our environment. There are many truthful statements in the article. Good physicians, veterinarians, and scientists continually study and learn. Good doctors pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, rely on a body of properly done objective studies (believe me, anyone can do a study to prove what they want to prove!), and think about the whole picture when it comes to health and disease management.

I would be happy to discuss the article, my comments and any additional questions you may have at Puppy’s visit next week!

Dr. Kim

Shortly after my earnest e-mail shot through cyberspace, my kind client responded with a mildly exasperated yet placating e-mail, soothing my raging frustration. I didn’t have much convincing to do apparently. As long as such mental gymnastics don’t give me a coronary, I’ll just be grateful for the chance to debate interesting and important topics with other people who care. 

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