Some people mistrust the safety and effectiveness of human vaccines for COVID-19 and other diseases, a fact that became abundantly clear during the pandemic.
Now, a new survey of 2,200 dog owners shows this mistrust may often extend to canine vaccinations.
The finding suggests there is spillover between the issues, with those who have negative feelings about human vaccines more likely to hold these same views about vaccinating their pets, even when it comes to deadly conditions like rabies.
“We knew that this phenomenon existed, but we didn’t know how prevalent it was. We didn’t know where it came from and what policy and public health implications might be, and that’s why we set out to do this research,” said Matt Motta, an assistant professor of health law, policy & management at Boston University School of Public Health, who conducted the research with his sister, Dr. Gabriella Motta, a veterinarian at Glenolden Veterinary Hospital in Pennsylvania.
“A lot of our motivation for this project was born out of conversation that she and I had, her lived experience as a vet, encountering folks who didn’t want to vaccinate their pets and trying to understand why,” he explained.
What they found is that nearly 40% of dog owners think dog vaccines aren’t safe. About 20% think they’re not effective. And 30% think they aren’t medically necessary.
About 37% of dog owners even reported believing that vaccinating dogs could cause their pets to develop autism.
“We were surprised not just by how prevalent canine vaccine hesitancy is, but the degree to which it plays a role in shaping the way that dog owners feel about policies that encourage universal rabies vaccination as well as their tendencies to vaccinate their own pets,” Motta said.
Not getting vaccinated against rabies can be dangerous for the dog who’s unvaccinated, for other dogs or animals they encounter, for their owners, the general public and even for their veterinarians.
And the problem is magnified by the sheer number of people who have dogs. About 45% of U.S. households own a dog, according to the study.
Rabies presents a significant potential health threat. It has a nearly 100% fatality rate for animals and for humans who don’t receive rapid treatment. More than 59,000 people die from rabies they contracted from dogs each year around the world. In the United States, most states require rabies vaccination for dogs.
Fortunately, the researchers don’t think this canine vaccine hesitancy is widespread enough to be a serious threat to public health.
The American Animal Hospital Association recommends all dogs without specific medical reasons for abstaining receive what are considered a core set of vaccines. This includes shots for rabies, distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus and parainfluenza. Dogs may also be vaccinated against Lyme disease and Bordetella.
The latest findings were published online recently in the journal Vaccine.
“I think that this suggests that we need to make more of an effort to improve trust in human vaccines. And that’s really the focus of most of my research, trying to do work to meet people where they are,” Motta said.
A “vast constellation” of social, psychological and political factors can make a person vaccine-hesitant, he said, and there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy for tackling that.
“We need lots of different messaging strategies that are capable of reaching the concerns or capable of addressing the concerns that those individuals have,” he said. “I think effective vaccine communication looks more like a patchwork than it does a magic silver bullet, one-size-fits-all strategy.”
Dr. Jessica Bell, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University, said she thinks in some cases people don’t vaccinate because they think certain diseases are no longer an issue.
Yet, the reason some diseases dogs are vaccinated against may be less common now is because of the vaccinations.
“Rabies is almost always fatal, at least in our animal populations, just because treatment is so difficult and expensive, but in people it’s still very high-risk. If you do not seek immediate treatment from exposure, death is likely,” Bell explained.
As with human vaccines, the more dogs and cats that are vaccinated, the better it protects those who can’t receive the vaccines.
“I really believe that those vaccines are necessary for safety of our dog and cat populations and our human populations,” Bell said.
It’s important to talk with a veterinarian about each individual’s needs to determine the best vaccine protocol for a particular dog or cat, Bell said. A veterinarian may recommend particular vaccines based on a family’s lifestyle and exposure rate, though rabies shots are standard.
If these vaccines weren’t effective, most veterinarians wouldn’t recommend them, Bell said.
“I think education from the get-go in a professional manner is very essential. And I think most people are reasonable or willing to look at both sides. But also as a veterinarian, I need to listen to reasons why they don’t want to and I really hope that the people that choose not to [vaccinate] don’t ever encounter a disease that they could have prevented for a $20 vaccine,” Bell added.
People who can’t afford vaccines for their pets may be able to get a low-cost option at local veterinary vaccination clinics, according to the researchers.
And what about those other popular furry friends? It’s not yet clear whether the same vaccine hesitancy carries over to cats.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on rabies.
SOURCES: Matt Motta, PhD, assistant professor of health law, policy & management, Boston University School of Public Health; Jessica Bell, DVM, clinical assistant professor community practice, College of Veterinary Medicine, Washington State University, Pullman; Vaccine, Aug. 26, 2023, online