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‘I fear it will take an outbreak of canine distemper or infectious canine hepatitis to bring home to people just how important vaccination is.’
That was one vet’s take on what he described as a perfect storm, arising from a fall in the vaccination rate in dogs combined with their importation from abroad.
It would be hard to argue that in the UK we have achieved herd immunity to several potentially fatal diseases affecting dogs and cats.
The proportion of dogs and cats receiving their primary course of vaccinations when young (along with the proportion receiving ‘boosters’) is now so low that, all else being equal, it’s a matter of when, not if, a serious outbreak occurs.
Dog carriers have already exposed people to leptospirosis, which is zoonotic. The BVA and others are rightly raising the alarm, drawing comparisons with worrying trends in human health.
In Europe, for example, measles cases tripled from 2017 to 2018 – a rise linked to ‘vaccine hesitancy’. The malign influence of ‘anti-vax’ (or, as some vets prefer to call them, ‘pro-plague’) voices spreading untruths has prompted concern.
However, in the veterinary world the situation is somewhat more nuanced. An indeterminate contingent of those opting not to have their pets vaccinated may have been more motivated by a desire to avoid vets’ fees. In some ways, there is logic, however shortsighted, in their position. Unless and until an outbreak occurs, the risk can seem theoretical. But of course by the time an epidemic takes hold, it is too late.
If there is hope of increasing the pet vaccination rate, it lies in winning round these unintentional anti-vaxers – the ones opposed to the cost and hassle rather than to vaccination itself.
That will require less emphasis on the supposed sanctity of choice. Which brings us to the Kennel Club and its policy of allowing unvaccinated dogs at its events (see page 630-631).
Again, there may be some logic in their position. A decision to ban would have to be based on a risk assessment – and the risk in this case may well be thought low. There is probably less risk of a show outbreak among dogs than, say, among cats or horses. That’s because cat flu and equine flu are highly contagious and transmitted through air, while diseases such as parvovirus and leptospirosis are mainly transmitted through excrement.
If there has never been a problem before, why change anything now? After all, vet practices don’t require dogs to have been vaccinated in order to merely enter waiting rooms or be hospitalised (though no doubt they apply measures to manage the potential disease risk presented by an unvaccinated inpatient).
The danger of the Kennel Club’s position lies more in the inadvertent messaging.
The Kennel Club says owners have ‘discretion’ as to whether their animal is vaccinated. Technically, that’s true – owners aren’t compelled to have their pets vaccinated. However, that does not mean either choice should be treated as of equal worth or that rules should be the same for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
Many insurers maintain exclusions in pet insurance policies so claims cannot be made for the cost of treatment for illnesses that could have been prevented by way of routine vaccination. Why shouldn’t such animals be excluded from shows too? That would help emphasise that irresponsible choices have consequences.
Why shouldn’t unvaccinated animals be excluded from shows?
The BVA says declining to have one’s animal vaccinated can have serious consequences.
There are anecdotal reports of a rise in cases of parvovirus in dogs and RHD2 in rabbits, while surveillance data also show a rise in calicivirus in cats.
We must not allow anti-vax sentiment to win.
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