The Anti-Vax Movement Is Now Infecting the Pet World

By Jen Reeder
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Grazyna Medynski believes rabies vaccines are dangerous.

She cites her three pets as examples: Her cat Doeno has a twitch, her dog Max had a painful eruption, and her other dog Min is now afraid to go up and down stairs.

“He’s just created all these kinds of fears,” Medynski said of Min’s inability to use the stairs. “Is it the rabies? I don’t know. But is that what rabies can do? Yeah, it can.”

Medynski is one of a growing number of anti-vaxxers whose beliefs are influencing their pets. The debunked claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children is influencing pet owners, too—even though autism spectrum disorder doesn’t occur in dogs and cats.

“In my lectures around the country and outside of the country, we’re getting a lot of feedback from practitioners that their clients are challenging the need to do vaccination,” Richard Ford, an emeritus professor of medicine at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccination Guidelines and Vaccination Guidelines for the American Association of Feline Practitioners, told The Daily Beast.

Ford said pushback is gaining momentum.

One of the biggest indicators of this trend is the number of clients who request an antibody titer—a blood test that measures the concentration of antibodies in the blood—for their dog or cat to help determine if they are protected from a specific disease. Ford said he has surveyed over 3,000 veterinarians and asked, “What is the number one reason that you would do a titer instead of giving the vaccine?”

“Interestingly, 98% say the owner requested it,” he said, noting that the market is growing for the test. “It’s actually driven by the client, not the veterinary professional. It’s because of clients concerned about over-vaccination.”

Ford said adverse reactions are rare—he estimated less than 1% based on past studies and observation.

As a precaution, Ford recommends spacing out vaccinations by 3-4 weeks in small dogs (adults weighing less than 20 pounds). The reason is that excipients—inactive ingredients such as proteins that are present in vaccines—can cause reactions. Those excipients are not the actual immunizing antigens. In those cases, Ford recommends core vaccines like rabies be administered first.

Still, veterinarians and now pet owners email him frequently with the question, “Why don’t we just reduce the volume of the vaccine for these small dogs?”

“It’s time, not volume, that seems to decrease the reaction rates,” he asserted. “The fact is, if the dog is truly allergic to a protein in the vaccine, putting half of it down the drain isn’t going to make a difference. They’re still going to be hypersensitive to the proteins that are in it… and the risk is doing that may not immunize the dog. With rabies, it is illegal to do that in law. You don’t want to be messing with the volume of the vaccine.”

One of the driving forces behind the movement to change rabies vaccination laws did just that. In 2017, the Connecticut State Board of Veterinary Medicine ordered a 25-year license probation for John Robb, a veterinarian who was giving partial doses of rabies vaccines to smaller dogs, which is illegal. He can no longer administer rabies vaccinations.

Now Robb is an outspoken proponent of titer testing in lieu of rabies vaccinations. Connecticut State Representative Fred Camillo told The Daily Beast he introduced legislation that would have made it legal for veterinarians to perform titers instead of rabies vaccinations (depending on the results) after speaking with Robb.

HB 5659 was defeated in 2017. A similar bill was defeated in New Hampshire earlier this year; Robb testified in favor of it as well.

Robb told The Daily Beast, “We all know that a titer indicates immunity”—but that is a point of contention in the veterinary community. The Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control by the National Association of Public Health Veterinarians states that “Rabies virus antibody titers are indicative of a response to vaccine or infection. Titers do not directly correlate with protection because other immunologic factors also play a role in preventing rabies and our abilities to measure and interpret those other factors are not well-developed. Therefore, evidence of circulating rabies virus antibodies in animals should not be used as a substitute for current vaccination in managing rabies exposures or determining the need for booster vaccination.”

That doesn’t temper Robb’s vitriol toward current rabies laws. While he can no longer administer rabies vaccines, he does have a business in which clients can submit blood draws from their pets. After sending it to a lab for titer testing, he sells rabies immunity certificates to pet owners, who must sign a “clarifying statement” that it is not a legal document.

“I’m not trying to fool people to go in and think they can license their dog with it,” he told The Daily Beast. “But it’s a true document and they can use it as they wish. I do 15 certificates a month, maybe 20. I’m pushing the change.”

Medynski said that her anti-vax views for her pets began with Robb, and that his work inspired her to start her anti-rabies activism by starting an online petition to support a state bill to loosen rabies laws.

Though the proposed New Hampshire bill was soundly defeated, she vows the fight isn't over. “We’re not giving up. No. There’s no reason for it [administering rabies boosters]. It’s causing injury, doing it.”

Medynski went so far as to claim that veterinarians were profiting because “It’s all about money.”

Veterinarians, however, disagree. Heather Loenser, a senior veterinary officer for the American Animal Hospital Association, emphasized in an email to The Daily Beast that rabies vaccination recommendations are centered on public safety and the health of the pet—not fiscal gain.

“I do not know of a veterinary hospital that relies on rabies vaccines to maintain their financial profits,” she said. “Veterinarians often volunteer their time to immunize pets at local low-cost, state/municipal sponsored rabies clinics to support public health in their local area. Others will travel throughout the world to protect pets and people in impoverished areas.”

She noted that rabies is a fatal zoonotic disease, and that according to the CDC, nearly 60,000 people die each year from rabies around the world, with over half of the deaths occurring in children, typically in areas where vaccinating stray and pet dogs is not done routinely.

“We have a reservoir of rabies in the wildlife population, so our unvaccinated pets are only one bite away from contracting it in their own backyard,” she cautioned. “In our veterinary oath, in addition to protecting animal health and public welfare, we swear that we will use our scientific knowledge and skills to ‘promote public health.’ Rabies vaccination falls squarely into that category.”

Ultimately, the issue boils down to whether clients trust their veterinary team. Barbara Hjermstad, hospital manager at Riverview Animal Hospital in Durango, Colo., said the practice hasn’t seen much pushback about vaccines, though about once every six months, someone will request a titer.

She noted that vaccines cost $26-$30 while titers cost $175, so vaccines are “not a money maker.”

Hjermstad feels it’s particularly important to vaccinate pets since they can’t speak. They can’t tell us if they’ve been in contact with a rabid racoon while hiking, or feces infected with parvovirus.

“You can’t control what animals do as much as you can children,” she said. “That’s even more reason to keep them vaccinated, you know?”

Read more at The Daily Beast.