Are annual shots a risk for dogs?
BY DIANE MCCARTNEY
The Wichita Eagle
Like a good pet owner, Pat Wohrley followed her veterinarian's advice and took her dog in every year for vaccinations.
Now she thinks the vaccinations, including a rabies vaccine that the city of Wichita requires yearly for dogs and cats, cut her dog's life short.
Sadie, a shepherd-setter mix, had to be euthanized in 2002 after she contracted an autoimmune disease that caused her body to attack its own red blood cells.
Veterinarians at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine told Wohrley they thought Sadie's illness was a "reaction from all the vaccines she'd been given throughout her life," Wohrley said.
"Her body just said enough's enough."
Most dogs and cats get their yearly vaccinations and suffer little more than an annoying sting and maybe swelling at the injection site.
But with a growing number of pets suffering vaccine-related reactions ranging from hives to potentially fatal tumors and autoimmune diseases, more pet owners -- and veterinarians -- are asking: How many vaccinations do pets really need?
In Wichita, rabies is the only vaccine that is required by law. Core vaccines for dogs such as parvo, distemper and hepatitis are recommended for good canine health but are not mandatory.
Most veterinarians, including those in Wichita, use a rabies vaccine for dogs that is guaranteed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give immunity for three years.
That's why Michael Nawrocki, president of the Wichita Veterinary Medical Association, calls yearly rabies vaccinations "overkill."
"Every animal, whether they get the one-year or the three-year vaccine, it's the exact same vaccine; it's good for three years," Nawrocki said.
Although veterinarians' opinions differ on the issue, the trend at K-State is to vaccinate dogs against rabies every three years, said veterinarian Susan Nelson, an assistant professor at K-State's Pet Health Center.
Puppies need to have their first rabies shots at 3 or 4 months, and "no matter what, they have to be boosted one year later," Nelson said. "After that, they can go to every three years."
If the vaccine is good for three years, why does the city of Wichita require pets to be vaccinated every year?
Kay Johnson, director of the city's department of environmental services, says irresponsible pet owners are to blame.
Nine times out of 10, Johnson said, when animal control picks up a dog that has been running at large, "it doesn't have tags, it doesn't have a license, it hasn't been vaccinated."
"Until we see better compliance with vaccinations in general, I'm not inclined to relax our position" on the yearly vaccine, she said.
"Rabies still kills," Johnson said. "It just takes one dog bit by a rabid skunk."
'Sore subject' with vets
The city of Wichita is one of a dwindling number of communities in the United States that still require annual rabies boosters.
Kansas does not have a state law but leaves it up to local lawmakers to decide how often a pet should be vaccinated.
The city of Manhattan allows pets to go up to three years before getting a rabies booster, while ordinances in Topeka, Salina and Lawrence require only that a dog's or cat's rabies vaccination be current.
Topeka requires dogs and cats to be licensed annually but leaves it up to veterinarians how often a pet is vaccinated against rabies.
"It has been a sore subject with vets in town," said Linda Halford, Topeka's animal control manager.
"Some give the one-year vaccine, others three; one gives it every two years. We don't care, as long as it's current."
Communities that have changed their rabies vaccination requirements from one year to three have not seen an increase in rabies cases, K-State's Nelson said.
Records kept by K-State's Diagnostic Laboratory for the years 1997 through 2007 reported positive cases of rabies in 102 cats and 21 dogs in Kansas.
In Sedgwick County, rabies was confirmed in seven cats and one dog over that 10-year period.
Because the rabies vaccine has been so successful, some veterinarians are hesitant to require it less often.
"We don't have to worry about rabies right now. The system we have used has worked," said Dan Thompson of Chisholm Trail Animal Hospital in Park City.
"If we back off to every three years, what's going to happen?"
Even with Wichita requiring rabies boosters once a year, "people have a tendency to fall behind," Thompson said.
Other local veterinarians said the existence of the three-year rabies vaccine is proof enough that dogs need not be vaccinated more often.
"It's insane for them to go through this every year," said Christopher Hesse of College Hill Animal Hospital.
Requiring all dogs to be vaccinated annually because some people don't take their dogs in for shots is "ludicrous thinking," Hesse said.
The 'Rabies Challenge'
Kris Christine has been studying vaccine-related illnesses in pets and lobbying to change vaccination laws since 2004, when her Labrador, Meadow, was diagnosed with cancer at the site of his rabies vaccination.
One result of her efforts is the Rabies Challenge Fund, which Christine, who lives in Maine, started with veterinarians Ronald Schultz of the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine and W. Jean Dodds of California.
he fund is paying for tests under way at the veterinary school in Madison, Wis., which will attempt to confirm previous studies that showed the rabies vaccine confers immunity in dogs for five to seven years.
"I would never suggest that anyone not vaccinate against rabies," Christine said.
"Our concern is that they not be required by law to be overvaccinated."
It's been five years since Wohrley lost her dog Sadie, and she recently received a notice from her veterinarian that her new dog, Rio, is due for his annual round of vaccinations.
But because Rio, an Australian shepherd, has kidney problems, Wohrley fears exposing him to more vaccines.
"I don't think I will give him any more vaccinations -- period," she said.
Wohrley said she understands the importance of rabies shots for puppies and doesn't mind paying a yearly license fee. She just wishes the city would reconsider its annual rabies vaccine requirement.
Responsible pet owners who care about their pets are the ones being hurt by the "outdated" law, Wohrley said.
"People that don't follow the law anyway aren't going to pay to get their dogs vaccinated," she said.
Reach Diane McCartney at 316-268-6593 or firstname.lastname@example.org.