If you call your pet a “furbaby,” it is possible that you think of your dog or cat as your child. Perhaps you set aside a portion of broiled salmon for Bella at dinner. Maybe you and Peppermint dress up in matching Halloween costumes. Perhaps Buddy’s birthday party has more guests than your own. (No judgment—I do all of the above with Artemis, my two-year-old mutt.) Or, it is increasingly possible, you are a pet anti-vaxxer, a growing movement of pet owners, breeders, and even veterinarians who are against the standard recommended inoculations that usually recommended by boarding kennels.
This issue has been covered in the Brooklyn Paper, with veterinarian Amy Ford of Boerum Hill’s Veterinarian Wellness Center claiming that “[i]t’s actually much more common in the hipster-y areas,” and in the New York Post, with Stephanie Liff of Clinton Hill’s Pure Paws Veterinary Care noting that “[A]utism doesn’t even exist in pets.” But unlike what these articles insinuate, pet anti-vaxxers don’t see themselves as working in the same movement as human anti-vaxxers, who (inaccurately) claim that vaccines cause autism. The idea of dog autism is too complex and understudied for anyone to make conclusions (not that inconclusive scientific studies have stopped human anti-vaxxers). But the pet anti-vax movement still owes its momentum to its human counterpart and pet anti-vaxxers do use the “vaccines cause autism in humans” example. There is a parallel distrust of Big Pharma and a veneration of “holistic” lifestyles and alternative medicines in the pet anti-vax movement.
“A lot of people are confused between the veterinary world and the world of children,” John Clifton, a New York-based anti-vaccination activist who runs Stop the Shots, said in his Upper West Side apartment, in which he has lived for decades, surrounded by framed photos of his late Australian terrier, Sparky, and his late wife, Josée Clerens. “Because that’s an entirely different issue.” Clifton grew up with pet dogs in the 1930s and 1940s, when the most popular dog food brands on the market were Nestlé’s Alpo and Nabisco’s Rival, which were “mostly cereals, and a little meat in there,” Clifton recalled. There did not exist a raw dog-food movement or venture-backed meal-delivery services like Ollie or My Farmer’s Dog yet. But Clifton didn’t become an advocate for holistic dog-rearing until Sparky was diagnosed with cancer at age six in 2000. Sparky’s veterinarian advised against vaccinations after chemotherapy treatment. For Sparky, it made sense: his compromised immune system was too weak for vaccine treatments. But Clifton and Clerens, neither of whom had a medical or scientific background, began to do research on their own. They found out that indeed there was no one-size-fits-all vaccination procedure as recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
“Veterinarians should create a core vaccine program, intended for use in the majority of animals in their practice area as well as a non-core vaccine program, intended for special circumstances/situations for animals in this same practice area and consider the potential for endemic disease exposure, susceptibility to disease and risk/benefit ratios,” the AVMA officially advises. Clifton, and many other pet owners like him, believes that veterinarians are pushing vaccinations onto pets due to greed and negligence, in the sense that veterinations are using their “core vaccine program” too often, instead of providing an individualized health program for every dog.
One of the most influential proponents of anti-vaxxing for dogs—i.e., “holistic” or “natural” dog rearing—is Dana Scott, the founder and editor in chief of Dogs Naturally magazine, a publication that publishes a free vaccine guide to “know if your vet is vaccinating your dog too often.” Scott is hosted a Goop-like conference called the “Raw & Natural Dog Summit” in November 2017 dedicated to sharing “multiple, actionable steps to make your dog’s life healthier and better.” Sessions at the summit include Looking At Cancer From A Different Perspective with a homeopathic veterinarian, CBD Your Pet with a cannabis entrepreneur, and Unraveling The Confusion Between Allergies, Leaky Gut, Yeast And Immune Disorders with the same homeopathic veterinarian (who runs the first licensed holistic vet clinic in Canada). “We don’t work with [Goop] but we share a lot of the same philosophies,” Scott said. “It’s really hard to find people like that—with pets—who are in our corner.” (Goop’s own canine-oriented stories include a write-up about stylish leashes and an interview with an “animal communicator.”)
Scott is also an experienced dog breeder of over 20 years—she is partial to black Labradors—and won’t sell a puppy to anyone who refuses to follow the guidelines of holistic dog rearing, which includes avoiding frequent vaccinations and feeding a raw-based diet. She does not have children, but if she did, she said, she would not get them vaccinated. “I honestly don’t think anybody should get vaccinated, ever,” she said, preferring homeopathy to traditional Western medicine.
Scott once published an article about autism’s link to vaccines on the magazine’s website, though the article does not mention the word “dog.” She cited instances in which dogs on the continent of Africa had contracted viruses even after vaccination attempts. In 2000, there was a Canine distemper virus (CDV) outbreak in African wild dogs in Tanzania that killed 49 of 52 dogs in two months—even after they were vaccinated with the standard inoculation used for harbor seals and domesticated dogs. Lions can contract the virus from dogs—even in vaccinated, domesticated populations. In 1994, one-third of the lions (about 1000 animals) in Tanzania’s Serengeti Reserve were killed by CDV.
There are numerous theories for the outbreak, from virus mutation to a variation in population immunity. “So, the dogs all get distemper and guess what? All the lions got distemper and eventually what killed the lions was distemper,” Scott said. That was her self-described “long-winded” explanation of why we don’t know what the ramifications are—and it’s technically true in this specific instance: scientists don’t know for certain why the lions were so susceptible to CDV. Interspecies pathogen transmission is sporadic and uncommon due to the molecular adaptations that viruses that must make to successfully enter the new host.
But veterinarians know much more about the effects of vaccinations on domestic, household animals—just look at how we treat household cats, knowing that they are susceptible to side effects after vaccines. “Did you know that they give shots to the cats on their legs because it can be amputated if they get cancer there?” Clifton asked me. Maria Verbrugge, DVM, a clinical instructor and specialist in vaccines at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine, confirmed this is true, though statistically unlikely: 1 to 2 of every 10,000 to 30,000 cats can develop an injection site sarcoma (a cancer tumor), and many cats can develop inflammation that will disappear in a few days. But even this is “completely preventable”, she notes—you can opt for non-adjuvant vaccines, which means they don’t contain aluminum (or another potentially irritating material), which have been proven to boost immunity in dogs and humans, but are much more volatile to cats. As noted by the AVMA, like you and me, your dog may feel lethargic, tender, or even slightly ill after getting vaccinated, but that doesn’t mean you or your dog should avoid precautionary treatments altogether.
One alternative to vaccinations that both Clifton and Scott are pushing for is the titer test, a laboratory test that measures the antibodies for certain diseases in the animal’s blood. You could present titer test results, proving your dog’s immunity, instead of a certificate of vaccination. “If we could get kennels and airlines to recognize the titer test as an equal to the vaccination record, my [activism] work would be complete,” Clifton said. According to Verbrugge, the titer test is “very reasonable to consider as an alternative to getting certain vaccinations.” The test can be administered for both CDV and canine parvovirus (commonly known as parvo), at the same frequency as vaccines, as results can change over the course of a dog’s life. A titer test is available for rabies, but rabies vaccinations are almost always legally required in all 50 states. In 11 states, including Alabama and California, your dog may be exempted with veterinary approval. Rabies is the only vaccine mandated by American law, in fact. Everything else is like a social contract between dog owners. There are no clinically proven “holistic” alternatives for heartworm prevention, leptospirosis, or canine influenza.
According to Jeff Feinman, VMD, a Weston, Connecticut-based veterinarian who practices “veterinary homeopathy” and does not believe in the safety of vaccinations either, titer tests are not conclusive and only demonstrate “a piece” of the immune response. Instead, Feinman suggests developing an individualized wellness routine with your local “holistic” veterinarian. The problem is, even if you had access to a “holistic” but certified practitioner like Feiman and the time to monitor your dog’s health as if it were named Gwyneth, the cost of herbs and acupuncture add up. His own pets, a rescued Standard Poodle and two Rex cats, are not vaccinated, and said that he would only consider inoculations if there were a parvo or distemper epidemic going around—but by then, it may be too late. Feinman advocates preventative, non-“reductionist” treatments in the form of homeopathy, and yet even he admits that neither parvo or distemper outbreaks can be prevented without traditional vaccinations.
Like Scott, Feinman’s preferred health program for dogs seems to require a rural setting with a private backyard for your dogs to run around—it doesn’t make sense if you live in an urban area where your dog is frequently exposed to both strange humans and strange dogs while taking a piss. Prince Charles, widely disliked for his hostility to science, among other reasons, treats his cows and sheepwhich are bred for human consumption)ith homeopathy. He claims the treatments to be successful, and asks why we do “not devise more effective systems where we reserve antibiotics for treating animals where the use is fully justified by the seriousness of the illness.” Like other opponents of pet vaccinations, he acknowledges that traditional inoculations are necessary for serious illnesses, without acknowledging that, by then, the animal may be too sick or too weak for the preventative vaccination to work anymore. In response, over 1000 UK veterinarians wrote an open letter in The Guardian in 2016 to call for the end of homeopathy remedies in treating animals.
Unless your dog interacts with new dogs in tight spaces frequently, it is possible to avoid vaccinating your dog every year without an increased risk of illness. When I took my dog to the veterinarian for her annual booster shots this September, our vet asked if we boarded in kennels or visited daycares frequently. If we don’t, we don’t have to get the shots, he said. I could save $200 (on top of the annual checkup fee) if I, like Scott, lived in a rural area where my dog wasn’t being exposed to other dogs. Margret Casal, DVM, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine agreed: “If you do the puppy [vaccination] series correctly and you get the booster at one year old, you can get that particular vaccine three years afterwards. The thing is, if you’re a completely healthy dog, then I would say that every 3 years is fine—even for rabies.” She points out that some clinical studies have shown preliminarily that dogs were immune for up to nine years after vaccination.
The strongest case for not vaccinating your dog is conditional, and sad: if your dog gets cancer and ends up getting chemotherapy. Subsequent vaccinations can make a weak dog even sicker, and are unnecessary if that dog is already being sequestered from other dogs due to cancer. This is what happened to Clifton’s dog, Sparky. Casal admitted to not vaccinating her own dog against Bordetella (the bacteria that causes kennel cough, a contagious respiratory disease—like bronchitis for dogs). “It’s not deadly,” she noted. But if her dog had to get chemotherapy, she would vaccinate him for Bordetella before treatment began. “I know [chemotherapy] will diminish his immune system and then he will need to be better protected from all illnesses,” she added.
When I told Casal that Scott did not vaccinate the dogs that she bred, she told me a story: At Penn’s veterinary clinic, there was once a breeder who did not believe in vaccinations, and so she brought in a litter of five puppies that had contracted parvo. They were placed in an isolation unit and intensive care. Two survived—and the breeder received a bill of $40,000, not including the loss of not being able to sell three purebred puppies. “Three puppies died and they didn’t have to die for forty bucks, the cost of a vaccine,” she says.