Dr. Angela Beal is a full-time veterinary writer who joined Rumpus Writing and Editing, a veterinary copywriting company, in 2020 after practicing veterinary medicine and teaching veterinary technicians.Read Articles Written by Angela Beal
Vaccines have long been a core component of preventive health care for people and animals. Many devastating diseases, such as smallpox in humans and rinderpest in cattle, were eradicated thanks to large-scale immunization efforts. However, over the past few decades, skepticism has grown over the safety and necessity of vaccinations, fueled most recently by the debate over the fast-tracked COVID-19 shot. As a result, the phrase “vaccine hesitancy” has emerged. Unfortunately, people too often see only the risks of vaccination, whether real or perceived, instead of the benefits.
Since people have more questions about their own vaccines, are they more hesitant to inoculate their pets? North Carolina State University emeritus professor Richard Ford, DVM, DACVIM, DACVPM, thinks so. As the lead editor of the American Animal Hospital Association’s current canine vaccination guidelines, Dr. Ford often contemplates vaccination trends.
“If you watch the news today, they’re talking about mRNA vaccines, coronavirus variants, herd immunity and, of course, vaccine hesitancy,” Dr. Ford said. “Three years ago, people had no idea what these terms meant. Add to that social networking and all the confusion that’s associated, and that creates a really unusual scenario where people are bombarded with misinformation. We have seen that impact the veterinary market as well.”
A 2020 Canadian Veterinary Journal study found that about two-thirds of U.S. and Canadian veterinarians thought the anti-vaccination movement had changed their clients’ feelings about immunizing their dogs and cats. Overall, 41% of the respondents thought hesitancy about human vaccines caused more dog owners to decline rabies shots, and 62% said more dog owners were rejecting other core vaccines. In addition, more than one-third reported vaccine-hesitant owners mentioning the movement in human medicine.
Some clients of Wesley Schoonover, DVM, the owner of WesVet Animal Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, feel strongly about vaccines.
“We had a couple of phone calls recently where people got pretty hostile with my CSRs regarding vaccine requirements,” he said. “These were about boarding facilities that require animals to have influenza or Bordetella vaccines. We also had someone get really hostile because we weren’t willing to trim the animal’s nails without a rabies vaccine.”
Hesitancy among pet owners started long before COVID and mRNA vaccines, Dr. Ford said.
“In 2019, before the pandemic, the United States was experiencing a measles outbreak,” he said. “In 2000, the CDC proclaimed that measles had been eradicated in the United States. Subsequent to that, a British medical journal reported that if you vaccinate your children against measles, there was a risk they would develop autism spectrum disorder. And I think that is a pivotal story behind what is going on in veterinary medicine.
“In 2019, over 1,200 children were diagnosed with measles in the United States. It was eradicated, and then it reemerged. Why did it reemerge? Because parents were reluctant to get their children vaccinated.”
Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent life-threatening illnesses. But how does a veterinarian convince clients that pet vaccines are safe, effective and necessary? To address clients’ concerns, you must understand why they display resistance. The Canadian study revealed pet owners’ greatest concerns.
“Vaccines Are Unnecessary”
Some clients think vaccination isn’t warranted because their pets’ risk of exposure to diseases is negligible.
“That probably stems from the fact that dogs and cats don’t get on airplanes and travel to conferences and interact with other cats and dogs like people interact with other people,”
Dr. Ford said. “So, there’s the perception that it’s unnecessary. But if somebody takes their dog to a dog park or day care, the risk really starts going up.”
Convincing the owners of indoor cats of the need for vaccines is a constant struggle.
“We’ve always had vaccine hesitancy with indoor-only cat owners,”
Dr. Schoonover said. “Some of that may be warranted, but a lot of the time, it’s not. What if they bring other cats into their household, or their cat gets outside?”
“Vaccines Cause Chronic or Severe Illnesses”
“This seems to be a direct spinoff of the measles-autism concern,” Dr. Ford said.
Although a number of studies showed that vaccines don’t cause autism in children, parents remained skeptical. And while pets don’t develop autism, that deep-rooted concern led dog and cat owners to question whether veterinary vaccines can cause serious illnesses.
“Feline Vaccines Cause Injection-Site Sarcomas”
Injection-site sarcomas do occur in a small number of cats, so address the concern with clients. (The American Veterinary Medical Association has more to say about it at bit.ly/3AlTICG.)
“We used to think that it was vaccines, but there is now evidence that a wide variety of injections can potentially lead to that outcome,” Dr. Schoonover said. “So, we often tailor our vaccine protocol to the cat’s lifestyle. We try to limit the number of injections.”
“Vaccines Cost Too Much”
Veterinary fees sway clients’ health care decisions, but the cost of treating a deadly disease far outweighs the cost of prevention.
“We see parvo every month,” Dr. Schoonover said. “And the treatment is very expensive. Owners are spending at least a couple thousand dollars, as opposed to a hundred-dollar vaccine series.”
“I will say, without question, that the best dollar value in veterinary medicine is a vaccine,” Dr. Ford said.
How should a veterinarian respond to a client critical of pet vaccines? Here are three tips.
1. Do Not Lecture
Making a client feel guilty (or stupid) for asking about vaccines is unproductive. They might leave your clinic without protecting the pet, and you might lose the client forever. Instead, assure pet owners that you know their questions stem from a desire to provide the best health care and that you share their goals.
2. Share the Research
Arguing numbers and statistics is difficult. Instead, you can say, “I had the same concerns about vaccinating my pet, so I did some research.” Be prepared to share the findings about vaccine safety and efficacy, as well as the risks of not protecting a pet.
3. Explain How You Mitigate Risks
Tell clients why you administer core vaccines every three years instead of annually and why you give feline injections in specific locations of the body. Showing that you take measures to address concerns will help pet owners trust your recommendations.
- “A Veterinarian’s Take on Vaccine Hesitancy,” (Penn Today): bit.ly/3SH6z92
- 2020 Canadian Veterinary Journal study: bit.ly/3T2BInL
- 2021 Animal Wellbeing Report (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals): bit.ly/3Nl9Dqw