Canine vaccine hesitancy

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canine vaccine hesitancy
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Canine vaccine hesitancy in the US hasn’t reached Australia, but if you do encounter vaccine-shy dog owners, educating them is key. By Trudie McConnochie

Since the pandemic, anti-vaccine sentiment has risen around the world and according to US researchers, that movement has extended into the realm of animal immunisation. Canine vaccine hesitancy (CVH)—a trend where dog owners are reluctant to get their dogs vaccinated—has increased in the US, with a study finding 52 per cent of dog owners are concerned about the safety and efficacy of dog vaccines. 

CVH hasn’t been researched in Australia, but local vets fear diseases like parvovirus could devastate dog populations if vaccination rates were to significantly decrease here.  

Dr Anne Quain, vet and senior lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science at the University of Sydney, says more dog owners are questioning the need for animal vaccinations than in the past, but overall people are less hesitant about animal vaccines than human vaccines.

“The pandemic increased public awareness around the possibility of adverse vaccination events, and the tension between the need for herd immunity, and risks to individuals in the case of adverse events,” she says. “There is also some debate about whether vaccinations should have been mandated, and some people are in the mode of resisting any advice to vaccinate as a pushback. I don’t feel that this is a huge proportion of dog owners, but my impression is this is larger than pre-pandemic levels.”

Nationwide shortages of some vaccinations including canine leptospirosis and feline F3 vaccinations in the wake of the pandemic, haven’t helped the situation, adds Dr Quain. 

“For some clients, the fact that animals can live without these vaccines is ‘proof’ that they aren’t needed. This is all happening in the era of mistrust of expertise and science.

“On top of this, the cost-of-living crisis and increased costs of providing veterinary care mean that clients are increasingly opting out of what they perceive to be non-essential veterinary care.”

Business as usual

In Byron Bay, where anti-vaccine sentiment is comparatively high, several vet practices told Vet Practice magazine they weren’t seeing a rise in canine vaccination hesitancy. 

“Traditionally, it is a large anti-vaccination-for-humans area, but people still vaccinate their dogs,” says Dr Susie Wood from Byron Bay Roaming Vet. “They come in and proudly tell me they’re anti-vax then ask me to vaccinate their dog, and I smile and nod and do it.”

In Melbourne, where pandemic lockdowns were longest in the country, vet Dr Ashleigh Long says many dog owners fell out of the habit of regular vaccinations when clinics were only open for essential visits. She attributes that, along with cost-of-living pressures and interrupted vaccine supplies, to reduced levels of dog vaccination at her inner-city practice over the past few years. 

There is also some debate about whether vaccinations should have been mandated, and some people are in the mode of resisting any advice to vaccinate as a pushback. I don’t feel that this is a huge proportion of dog owners, but my impression is this is larger than pre-pandemic levels.

Dr Anne Quain, senior lecturer, Sydney School of Veterinary Science

“Most owners are not asking about skipping vaccines, but rather asking if they can do them at the next visit when they are under less financial duress,” she says.

She’s also noticed owners asking more questions and wanting to play a bigger role in their pet’s health—a trend she welcomes.

“They want to be more informed to make educated decisions,” Dr Long notes. “They might choose to do titre testing instead which is more targeted to their pet’s level of protection. After all, vaccination recommendations are based on those pets with the lowest immune response in mind.”

Protecting against parvo

While the US research focused on rabies vaccinations, in Australia, parvovirus is the most severe virus dogs are vaccinated against. It’s a virus that kills more pet dogs than any other virus.

Veterinarian Dr Mark Kelman has researched parvo extensively and is founder of the website parvoalert.com, which tracks the virus’s reach in Australia. His research found around 20,000 dogs and puppies catch parvo every year in Australia, with roughly half of them dying. Dr Kelman, who now works as veterinary operations manager at vaccine producer Zoetis, is concerned about the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on canine vaccination rates in Australia. 

“It’s the areas or groups where people are really struggling to make ends meet financially that people seem to delay vaccination in puppies, or choose to not revaccinate dogs because they feel it would be okay not to, where canine parvovirus outbreaks then occur,” he says. “As the financial crisis worsens nationally, we may start to see outbreak regions growing as more people delay vaccination of pets.”

Giving reassurance

Whatever their reason for vaccine reluctance, dog owners who want to skip vaccinations can present a challenge for veterinary professionals. Dr Quain says approaching conversations about vaccination with empathy and a desire to educate can help.

“In my experience, owners want to feel their concerns are heard, that their veterinarian has their dog’s best interests at heart, and vaccine protocols are evidence-based and that vaccines are safe,” she says. “Clients expect us to make recommendations that are in their animal’s best interests, so if we feel that something is essential, we need to explain why.”

She says it’s important to remember that many owners may not understand the severity of diseases like parvo. Equally, veterinary professionals who haven’t witnessed an animal suffering from parvo may struggle to convey the virus’s impact.

“Vaccines can be their own public relations enemy: when they work, they’re invisible, because we don’t see the diseases they prevent. So it’s our job as veterinarians to inform clients,” she says.

“It can also be useful to explain the costs of treating parvovirus,” she adds. “If a puppy requires hospitalisation, intensive care, medications, plasma transfusions and so on, the bill can run to thousands of dollars.”

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