Should people who refuse to get their pets vaccinated have their animals taken away from them?
It’s a question few of us ever thought would need to be asked, but we live in strange times, where the internet has fuelled an all-out war on established facts and basic logic, and we are now seeing a spike in the number of people who fear that vaccinating their dogs will give them behavioural disorders and auto-immune diseases, despite there being no evidence for such concerns.
In the past few years, the anti-vaxxers have risen from a mocked fringe movement of lunatics to a worrisome mainstream social movement, leading to the ridiculous situation where the World Health Organisation had to declare it a global health crisis after 41,000 people became infected with preventable measles in Europe alone in 2018. The fear over vaccines stems largely from discredited research linking the human MMR immunisation with autism, as well as unfortunate historical episodes such as the contamination of the polio vaccine with Simian virus 40 in America in the 1950s. Other medical disasters such as the thalidomide crisis, while not vaccine related, has further made people suspicious of medical intervention. Scepticism is healthy, and even experts do make mistakes, but the anti-vaxxer movement seems to be fuelled by misunderstandings of basic medicine, paranoia and confirmation bias. Some people have managed to make lucrative careers from giving talks about the dangers of vaccines, which further pushes the agenda.
As we’ve said before, the anti-vaxxer movement has been slowly moving into the realm of pet health. Some of the fear is not entirely unreasonable, like concerns about feline injection-site sarcomas (although this fails to weigh up the small risk of developing FISS against the high probability of catching a contagious disease). Most of it, however, is generated by misinformation and weaponised scepticism, where, for some inexplicable reason, people are more likely to believe an unsourced scare story on the internet than listen to the opinion of a qualified vet. A recent report suggested that many hundreds of pet owners around the world are refusing to get inoculations for common and deadly illnesses such as canine parvovirus and the equine Hendra virus, the latter being especially worrying given its zoonotic nature. The internet is becoming increasingly abundant with strange conspiracy theories about vets only insisting on vaccines as a con to make money, and that most of these vaccines are not necessary or dangerous. Many owners are opting instead for alternative therapies and pseudoscientific remedies. One vet reported being snippily told to “do your research” when enquiring why an owner was refusing to let their dog get vaccinated, while another was accused of being a racketeer after insisting on vaccinating a cat.
Now, one vet is refusing to take it anymore. Sam Kovac, from Australia, has called for people to have their pets removed if they refuse to get them inoculated against serious illnesses. Not mincing his words, Dr Kovac cut anti-vaxxers down to size in an open letter in the Daily Telegraph, saying they are “sentencing their dog to death”, and went on to say that he doesn’t think such people should be allowed to keep pets at all. People who are unwilling to listen to basic advice from their vets are very likely to continue to favour “alternative” (i.e. ineffective) medical remedies, and therefore are likely to inadvertently condemn their pets to unnecessary suffering and early death. It is arguable that this amounts to a violation of an animal’s basic rights, and is therefore animal cruelty. Of course, others would disagree, saying that ultimately it would be too draconian to start separating people from their pets over a misguided attempt to do what they honestly think is best for their pet, and this is not animal cruelty or neglect per se. Then again, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and some of the worst things imaginable have been done by people doing what they think is right. Also, it’s not the owner who will suffer the misery, it’s the animal, who didn’t make the decision. As Sam Kovac says, “If a disease as contagious, as horrific and with a high mortality rate as parvovirus existed for humans, this conversation would be so different.”