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‘Alarming’ drop in pet vaccinations

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By Matthew Limb

Millions of animals are at risk from potentially fatal diseases as new figures show a ‘record decline’ in the number of pets being vaccinated in the UK.

The proportion of pet dogs, cats and rabbits receiving a primary vaccination course when young fell by 18 per cent over the past three years – from 84 per cent in 2016 to 66 per cent in 2019.

Also, nearly a third of pets are not receiving regular booster vaccines, according to the latest PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report, published last week.

Veterinary experts said the ‘worrying’ trend meant herd immunity was unlikely to hold, threatening greater exposure to diseases such as parvovirus, leptospirosis and distemper.

A loss of herd immunity could see a resurgence in preventable diseases

Sean Wensley, PDSA’s senior vet, said: ‘A resulting loss of herd immunity could see a resurgence in preventable diseases that can cause considerable suffering and death.’

Ian Wright, head of the European Scientific Counsel, Companion Animal Parasites UK & Ireland, said: ‘With current trends you could expect to start to see distemper epidemics and infectious canine hepatitis epidemics again in the UK which would be a real tragedy given that they are completely preventable by vaccination.’

Asked how quickly outbreaks could occur, Wright said: ‘It would depend how regionalised those reductions were and where infection is reintroduced. It could happen quite rapidly potentially, or it may gradually happen over a longer period of time.’

Michael Day, who chairs the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Vaccination Guidelines Group (VGG), said the PAW report was ‘alarming’.

‘The VGG has always emphasised the importance of robust core vaccination of puppies and kittens as the basis for herd immunity in companion animal populations,’ he told Vet Record.

He said the UK had historically achieved good control over infectious diseases by routine core vaccination of pets.

‘We cannot now become complacent and it is as important as ever to ensure that our companion animal population is vaccinated according to recommended guidelines,’ Day said.

The PAW report, produced in conjunction with YouGov, has monitored pet welfare issues across the UK for the past nine years, surveying over 73,500 people in that time.

This year it surveyed over 5000 cat, dog and rabbit owners to create an accurate picture of pet wellbeing across the nation (see box for other findings).

The 2019 report found that 17 per cent of owners who hadn’t vaccinated their pet said they deemed it ‘too expensive’.

A further 17 per cent of owners said their pet didn’t come into contact with other animals, 16 per cent felt it was ‘unnecessary’ and 13 per cent said their pets found visits to the vets ‘very stressful’.

Other findings in the paw report:

  • 19 per cent of dogs are left alone for five or more hours

  • 13 per cent of dogs are not walked every day, 1 per cent of dogs never get walked

  • 31 per cent of dog owners and 56 per cent of cat owners are not aware of their pet’s current weight

  • 43 per cent of cats live in a multi-cat household

  • 49 per cent of rabbits live alone

  • 75 per cent of owners underestimate the true cost of pet ownership

Some 11 per cent of owners hadn’t thought about vaccination and 10 per cent had ‘not got round to it yet’.

Sue Paterson, president of the British Small Animal Veterinary Association, said: ‘Whilst vaccination is expensive and cost is cited as a reason for not vaccinating…the lack of perception (or rejection) of the need for vaccination of dogs, cat and rabbits are more worrying statistics and reflect the situation in the human health sector.’

The PAW report warned of the spread of misinformation about vaccines on social media and said vets should combat negative messages.

Paterson said the BSAVA fully supported measures to increase access to vaccinations to the whole of the pet-owning community and to combat negative messaging.

Daniella Dos Santos, junior vice president of the BVA, said: ‘As a vet, it is hugely concerning to consider the future for pets in this country if owners begin to move away from regularly vaccinating. We would encourage anyone with questions or concerns about vaccination to speak to their vet.’

The PDSA said it was running a vaccination amnesty across its pet hospitals to boost uptake and raise awareness of life-saving vaccines. •

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