January 12, 2010

Vaccinating Dogs & Cats Yearly: You Bet Their Lives

Mark Twain once wagged, there are "lies, damn lies and statistics." This was never more true than with the potential of adverse reactions from annual vaccination of dogs and cats.

In this realm, hiding emotional pain and financial costs behind statistics keeps veterinarians safe in an outdated vaccination protocol, makes laws all the more difficult to reform and subjects companion animals to needless suffering and / or foreshortened lives.

Consider Shadow, a seven year old silvery gray house cat who is the picture of  health - except she's slowly dying from the effects of vaccine associated feline sarcoma.

VAS is an incurable - and completely avoidable cancer - that results in approximately 10 of every 10,000 vaccine injections each year. It most commonly occurs in cats; rarely in dogs and ferrets. VAS can manifest in as few as three weeks or develop slowly over five years post-vaccination. The odds of VAS increase measurably with the number of injections any one animal receives, especially when it is administered in the neck and scruff area.

Adjuvants used in killed virus vaccines including rabies and FeLV for feline leukemia also increase the risks of VAS. This substance holds the virus in the area of the vaccination for a couple of weeks so it can be released slowly, allowing immune stimulation to take place over a longer time period. Indeed, some fibrosarcomas have been found to have vaccine adjuvant embedded within them. Adjuvanted vaccines have been shown to be five times more likely to cause VAS by inducing mutations in the genes that prevent cancer.

Veterinarians have known about the risks of VAS in cats for almost 20 years.

A letter to the editor published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in October 1991 first raised the issue of a potential association between rabies vaccination of cats and development of cancerous tumors or sarcomas.

Five years later, in 1996, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) and Veterinary Cancer Society (VCS) jointly formed the Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force (VAFSTF) to respond to this emerging health issue of cats.

Their report was published in 2001. In many words, it stated that VAS is a problem, but the gains of vaccine protection against rabies and FeLV far outweigh the risks.

For liability reasons and treatment purposes, the AVMA and AAFP warned members to avoid neck or scruff shots; administer the vaccine in the muscle of a rear leg. This does not make VAS curable; it makes it operable.

VAS is shaped like an octopus with many tentacles reaching out from the primary tumor. Complete surgical removal is practically impossible. A fibrosarcoma between the shoulder blades is especially difficult to remove because those tentacles can extend down under the scapulas and between the spinus processes where they are inoperable.

Even with amputation and aggressive cancer treatments to arrest further invasion, the best the pet owner can hope for is to prolong the animal's quality of life for one, two, possibly three more years.

So the veterinarian who insists on yearly vaccination rolls the dice; chances of this shot causing VAS are 10,000 to one. It's a sorry bet when your companion is the one.

Ask Carol Snyder Halberstadt.

Her companion cat, Shadow was six years old when Carol noticed subtle changes in appetite, sleep patterns, then gait. A quick trip to her regular veterinarian revealed a small elongated lump in the muscle above the rear left hind leg where Shadow had been vaccinated four years before with the adjuvant feline leukemia vaccine.

Biopsy confirmed a vaccine associated feline sarcoma. It was amputate or euthanize.

Since the diagnosis almost a year ago, Shadow's leg has been amputated from the pelvic socket down. She has endured 15 radiation treatments, four chemo treatments and a cycle of carboplatin - all treatments used in both humans and animals. Treatment costs to date top $10,000. Prognosis is poor. The cancer has spread to Shadow's lungs.

"We always knew it was incurable, but knowing and knowing are two different things," says Carol Snyder Halberstadt.

How do pet owners minimize the risks?

Dr. Bob Rogers, who owns Critter Fixer pet hospital in Spring, Texas, and a staunch advocate for the reform of rabies laws in Texas and nationwide says, "If every vet would do four things [which The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends,] VAS would be so rare it would be practically non existent."

1. Reduce the number of vaccines.
2. Use alternative methods of immunization like intranasal vaccines.
3. Avoid vaccines with adjuvants.
4. Look for a lump at the vaccination site and if one persists have it removed before it becomes cancer.

Today, the true incidence of VAS is unknown. Reporting of adverse events stemming from vaccination is not mandatory and the turmors can emerge long after the injection. But statistics suggest that few veterinarians have changed their vaccine protocol to protect cats from VAS. Vaccines without adjuvants comprise only 10 percent of the current market. The number of cats that die as a result of the administration of adjuvant rabies or FeLV vaccine has not declined.

Like playing Russian roulette with the family pet, you bet their lives when you vaccinate yearly.


For Shadow, Before Your Time
"For the heavens will vanish like smoke and the earth wear away like a garment..."
   (—Isaiah 51:6)

Who will understand when you go
as you must before your time?
And what is that? And what kind
of mercy will let us hold you
when you go?
You will not know old age
you will not grow old
like a plucked leaf or grass
before seeding you will go—
like a tree cut down
like a blasted mountaintop—
you will have no time
to wear away.

(© January 1, 2010 Carol Snyder Halberstadt)

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