Pet vaccines: what owners need to know

Are vaccines safe? We asked veterinary surgeon, Dr. Sophie Bell, from Animal Love Grooming and Well-Being.

A cat being vaccinated

"When considering vaccinating your pet you may do some research and you will stumble across reports of some worrisome reactions that have been observed in the veterinary industry following a vaccination. Like with any veterinary medicines, there will always be side effects observed, from mild to severe," Dr. Bell, told us.

"Vaccinations, thankfully, carry only a very small adverse reaction risk; and most reactions observed have no long-lasting side effects."

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But some pet owners are concerned about the safety of vaccines and a minority are deciding not to vaccinate.

We look into their concerns about over-vaccination and why some people use titre tests instead. We'll also find out how pet insurers cover unvaccinated pets.

Why do some owners refuse to vaccinate their pets?

The top reasons pet owners don't vaccinate, according to a 2019 survey by vet charity the PDSA, are the cost (20% of dog owners) and the fact their pets don't come into contact with other animals (24% of cat owners), so they feel they are unnecessary.

More recently, availability of vets during the Coronavirus pandemic may have had an impact. The number of dogs that are not protected by regular boosters rose from 18% in February 2020 to 23% in 2021. For cats it went from 36% to 39%.

The PDSA says: "These findings clearly show there is a need to help owners understand the necessity of vaccinations."

The average cost of cat and dog vaccines and boosters varies around the country, but typically it's around £60-70 for an initial puppy or kitten course. Although the price of pet care can add up, it's one of your responsibilities as a pet owner to budget for vaccinations.

We have seen comments online from people who are concerned about the side effects of vaccines or believe the vaccine could be harmful. Others have said pets don't need booster vaccines because early jabs will have already given their cat or dog immunity.

What pet insurance providers think about vaccines

At Bought by Many, we understand that you might have concerns about vaccines but based on scientific data and research, we feel vaccinations are key to keeping pets healthy and preventing the spread of illnesses that can cause pain and suffering.

That's why we encourage pet owners to vaccinate their pets and follow the guidelines set out by their vets and relevant authorities. Not vaccinating your pet might invalidate your insurance policy and puts your pet at risk of contracting diseases.

But we also believe your vet often knows best and we will still cover your pet if your vet has recommended that they don't get vaccinated.

Most pet insurers require pets to be vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis and parvovirus for dogs and feline infectious enteritis, feline leukaemia and cat flu for cats.

Pet insurers have slightly different vaccination requirements but all of the companies in our list of the best pet insurance providers say they will refuse to pay a claim that's the result of a pet getting ill or dying from an illness that it could have been vaccinated against.

What do vets and other experts say about the safety and importance of pet vaccines?

All expert UK veterinary organisations, including the British Veterinary Association, PDSA, Veterinary Products Committee, Veterinary Medicines Directorate and BSAVA, believe vaccinations are safe and help save millions of pets' lives every year.

In an article for US site PetMD, Dr T. J. Dunn says that although he understands owners' concerns, he is "convinced that vaccinating has saved uncountable lives from the ravages of parvovirus and distemper... not to mention potential rabies cases."

He adds that he's seen "tens of thousands of [pet] patients live well into their teens that have had numerous vaccines almost yearly throughout their entire lives" and is "not convinced by experience that vaccinating has a destructive effect on the overwhelming majority of animals."

The Veterinary Medicines Directorate - an agency of the UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs - states: "Vaccination plays a very valuable role in the prevention and control of major infectious diseases in cats and dogs."

A PDSA’s 2019 PAW report expresses concern about the growth of an anti-pet-vax movement and says increasing concerns about over-vaccination are resulting in fewer people vaccinating their pets regularly and that this could weaken pets' 'herd immunity'.

Herd immunity is the resistance to the spread of a disease that results from a sufficient number of a population acquiring immunity.

The problem hasn't gone away. The 2021 report states that only 61% of cats in the UK and 77% of dogs received annual boosters in 2021.

Is over-vaccination harmful?

Over-vaccination is when pets that are already immune to something are vaccinated against it again.

Some pet owners and vets think that because vaccines have a long duration of immunity (DOI), annual vaccination isn't needed.

Ronald Schultz, professor and chair of pathobiological sciences at University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, says that the type of vaccines a pet needs, and the frequency at which they are renewed, depends on environmental factors and way of life and warns that over-vaccination can cause skin problems, allergic reactions and autoimmune disease.

He holds the view that many vaccines provide a lifetime immunity and don’t need to be repeated.

The World Small Animals Veterinary Organisation (WSAVA) acknowledges that newer vaccines have a longer duration of immunity - three, sometimes even four years, and even up to a lifetime - however, they add that their guidelines "do not serve as a set of globally-applicable rules for the administration of vaccines to dogs and cats."

The WSAVA says that ultimately it comes down to vets to "read, discuss and adapt" the guidelines based on the products available, the pet and other relevant circumstances. All vaccination products come with guidelines, and it may be that not all vaccine manufacturers have changed their products to a three-year duration of immunity.

Dr Margret Casal, an associate professor of medical genetics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, told US site WebMD that such views have caused many pet owners to refuse vaccination and has resulted in a growing number of pet deaths. And added that "vaccines have saved millions of lives".

The UK's Veterinary Medicines Directorate guidelines are: “It is important to recognise that immunity following the initial vaccination of pups and kittens may not be life-long. Booster vaccinations are recommended to maintain good protection. For some diseases, annual boosters are recommended, but there are other diseases where the interval between vaccinations may be at least three years or longer.”

The PDSA says: "Use of vaccinations - or ‘jabs’ - has helped to stop pets getting sick and has saved millions of lives over the last few decades. There are lots of illnesses that used to be common but now are rarely seen by vets, thanks to vaccinations stopping them spreading. If owners stop vaccinating their pets, we’ll see a lot of these rare conditions coming back and more seriously ill pets will be in need of lifesaving treatment."

Some pet owners and vets have suggested the number of vaccinations could be reduced if pets have a blood test, called a titre test. It indicates whether a pet already has immunity to a disease.

What’s a titre test and can it replace pet vaccines?

Dr Sophie Bell says: "It's advised that all pets receive their initial/primary vaccines when they are young. This is due to the immunity gained from mum starting to drop and therefore needs a re-boot.

"Some individuals choose to titre test following these primary core vaccines. This involves a simple blood test to look for the antibody levels. If they are moderate to high, vaccination may not take place that year but if they are low a booster will be required.

"It is important to note that some establishments such as boarding kennels, will not be able to board your dogs based on a titre test alone. They often require full vaccination history."

A titre test is a blood test that can show whether your pet has antibodies for a particular illness. The presence of antibodies suggests your pet is immune to that illness – if it caught it, the antibodies would attack the pathogen and flush it out of your pet’s system.

Titre testing can be used to determine the effectiveness of a vaccine or the presence of any natural immunity towards disease.

Some pet owners and vets say that titre tests should replace booster vaccinations, as long as the results indicate the presence of antibodies. But others disagree.

They warn that while a titre test that shows antibodies for certain illnesses could be accepted by kennels and catteries, it may not be useful in checking for immunity.

For example, the presence of antibodies, or their absence, may not necessarily mean your pet will or will not get a disease.

Dr Patty Khuly, in an article for PetMD, says that titre test results are not conclusive evidence – they measure antibody immunity but not cell immunity and even though it is thought the two normally correlate, it is not clear how much.

She did go on to say that she uses the test to identify serious lapses in vaccine protection when it is not clear whether a pet has been vaccinated, but that it is not reliable enough to make a decision about skipping a vaccination.

Are there alternatives to pet vaccines?

No, none of the expert sources or scientific research we reviewed referenced alternatives that will immunise your pet against diseases.

Professional veterinary organisations and evidence-based veterinary medicine uphold that vaccination effectively prevents the spread of deadly viruses.

It's also worth remembering that if you choose to not vaccinate your pet you may face some restrictions.

For example, kennels and catteries often have requirements for pets to have regular and complete vaccination records and some may refuse to take pets that are not up to date.

Pet insurance companies may refuse cover or reject a claim relating to an illness that could have been prevented by vaccinated.

At Bought by Many, we encourage vaccinations because we believe they are the safest way to keep pets safe from dangerous infectious diseases. But we'll l still cover your pet if your vet has recommended it doesn't get vaccinated.

You may need vaccinations if you're planning to travel outside the UK with your pet. The EU's Pets Travel Scheme requires pets to be vaccinated against rabies and individual countries may have different requirements.

Learn more about the Pets Travel Scheme here.

Are there side effects to pet vaccination?

"Vaccinations thankfully carry only a very small adverse reaction risk, with most reactions observed with no long lasting side effects," according to veterinary surgeon Dr Sophie Bell.

"Some diseases that our pets carry can be transmissible to humans; so vaccination can be an important factor in protecting your family," she adds.

"Once your pet receives their first vaccine, be sure to monitor them for the rest of the day. Make sure you know what to look out for if they're having a reaction such as increases in vital signs - temperature, pulse and respiration rates and also monitor their food and water consumption, note any behavioural changes and report anything abnormal to your vet," advises Dr Bell.

Serious side effects are rare. Mild reactions can include loss of appetite, decreased activity, mild fever, sneezing, coughing or a runny nose.

A small, firm swelling may develop where the shot was given but should disappear a few days later. If it doesn’t and gets bigger, contact your vet.

Serious side effects are vomiting and diarrhoea, collapse, difficulty breathing, severe cough and hives. If your pet experiences any of these, seek immediate veterinary help.

After reviewing all cat and dog vaccines between 1998 and 2002, the independent Veterinary Products Committee concluded that in spite of occasional adverse reactions, "vaccination plays a very valuable role in the prevention and control of major infectious diseases in cats and dogs and overall risk/benefit analysis strongly supports their continued use".

All owners are motivated by the desire to keep our animal companions happy and healthy. It's important to get advice from your vet if you're concerned about any medical treatment.

We couldn't find an equivalent report about pet vaccines but here is a report by the National Organisation of Animal Health that explains how "the benefits of vaccination continue to outweigh this small risk".

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