One of the major reasons I started my journey into holistic medicine 20 years ago was the issue of vaccinations. About 10 years into my career as a small animal veterinarian, I started to question the need for annual boosters for diseases such parvo in dogs and distemper in cats. It started to dawn on me that for all the health issues I had seen in my years of practice, I never treated animals with infectious diseases that we routinely vaccinated for—even in pets who hadn’t had any vaccines for many years. Why was it that children received immunizations for various diseases, but that none of these were continued into adulthood? I remember pulling out my Veterinary Immunology textbook and being shocked that I could find no scientific support for the practice of yearly vaccines for most of the serious contagious diseases. No clinical studies were ever done to find out how many years the protection from the vaccine lasted.
When I presented my “revelation” about vaccines to my boss at the veterinary clinic where I was working at the time, it quickly became clear to me that it was not a subject he was very interested in discussing. When I brought it up to one of my colleagues over a beer one evening, she reasoned that even if the vaccines weren’t necessary in adult dogs and cats, they served the purpose of encouraging pet owners to bring their animals in for regular visits. Many serious health problems could be overlooked without regular physical examinations, she argued. Since serious vaccination reactions were rare in her experience, the greater good was being served. The vaccines were generally safe, and pets were getting important regular check-ups and improved preventative care. While I was certainly committed to providing good preventative medical care for my patients, I didn’t feel comfortable doing a procedure I felt was unnecessary—no matter what the “greater good.” I also started researching the connection between vaccines and certain serious diseases that developed after the vaccine. Once I came to the conclusion that there was no valid reason for most yearly pet vaccines—and there was a possibility that vaccines could trigger the development of serious diseases—I felt I could no longer work at a conventional veterinary clinic. I started my own vet housecall practice as a way of providing what if felt was a healthier alternative for my patients.
When in the early 90’s the University of California Davis vet school revealed the connection between the feline leukemia vaccination and the development of an aggressive, malignant cancer at the injection site, many veterinarians began rethinking their vaccine protocols. Newer studies showed no benefit from vaccine boosters once immunity was established in puppies and kittens, and that the protection acquired as young animals lasted years—even possibly the entire life of the animal. Progressive veterinary practices started recommending once-every-three-year vaccines instead of annually. Some vets began offering a blood test called a “titer” to check a patient’s immunity to certain viral diseases, instead of routine vaccination. Vets became much more judicious in their use of the feline leukemia vaccine in an effort to reduce the incidence of injection site tumors. While I applaud this direction toward less aggressive vaccine protocols, I go even further and recommended no vaccinations for most adult dogs and cats once they are successfully immunized as puppies and kittens. A rabies vaccination is required by the county every three years in dogs, but not cats.
In this article, I touch only briefly on the potential link between vaccines and the subsequent development of other serious diseases. While the development of vaccine-induced tumors in cats is well established, other vaccine-disease connections are harder to prove. While the debate on the wisdom of immunizing people for measles rages on Facebook and in the media, I lean toward the “do no harm” oath in my practice. If it can be shown that most vaccine boosters are unnecessary in adult dogs and cats (ask your vet about titer tests), and there is any potential for serious adverse side effects, why do them at all?
Dr. Judkins is the owner of Animalkind Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Historic Jacksonville