Pets, Vaccines, and Conspiracy Theories


“People have had enough of experts.” – Michael Gove

To most people, injections are about as welcome as falling asleep on the train, then waking up to find you’ve gone miles beyond your destination and your phone has been stolen and replaced with a signed photo of Piers Morgan. Even the most robust of people can be rendered a nervous wreck by the sight of that hypodermic needle coming at them. Of course, what’s slightly worse than getting jabbed with a needle is dying in a pandemic that wipes out entire populations, which is why we put ourselves through these ordeals. It’s easy to forget that diseases which are now effectively eradicated in advanced nations, like tuberculosis and polio, were real threats until relatively recently. Annually, an estimated 2 – 3 million deaths are prevented by inoculations – a figure that could rise by 1.5 million if more people were treated, according to the World Health Organisation. Such is the magic of science.

We are now wading into August, which happens to be National Immunisation Awareness Month (in America, but pathogens don’t exactly respect sovereign borders, so it’s something everybody should be getting onboard with). Technically, this is aimed at humans, but it seems like an ideal time to highlight the need for pet vaccinations. Pet immunisations are incredibly important to protect animals from many debilitating diseases, and prevent them spreading illnesses to other animals and humans. This month would be a good time to promote pet vaccinations at your practice, or just remind friends and family members to make sure they have their pets’ vaccines up to date.

Of course, because the human race seems to be in a constant cycle of self-sabotage, simply reminding people about vaccines might not be sufficient. We now have to contend with the anti-vaxxers, the people who are convinced that vaccinations are more dangerous than deadly diseases. This has led to a rise in diseases which are easily prevented with routine vaccination, like measles, which should only surprise people who eat at McDonald’s every day and wonder why they’re fat. While it is true that a contrarian view isn’t automatically wrong, the overwhelming majority of research into both human and animal vaccines has concluded that they do immeasurable good, as the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs is unequivocal about:

“It is extremely rare for any serious side effects to follow vaccinations. Mild reactions such as animals being a little quiet or off their food for a day or so are possible but are short lived. Any adverse effect is generally far outweighed by the benefit of protection against serious disease. The independent Veterinary Products Committee (VPC) reviewed all UK authorised dog and cat vaccines between 1999 and 2002. They concluded: ‘Vaccination plays a very valuable role in the prevention and control of major infectious diseases in cats and dogs’. Although adverse events occasionally follow vaccination, including the suspected failure to work well, the VPC concluded that the ‘overall risk/benefit analysis strongly supports their continued use’.”

Despite, this, you can find numerous websites and even books trying to discourage people from getting their pets vaccinated. Many of these websites are flooded with supportive comments, and the books have good reviews on Amazon, suggesting they are being taken seriously. One typical example says:

“Vaccines destabilise the immune system, leading to all sorts of chronic illness.  From all I’ve seen and read, vaccines do not set your dog up for good health.  They have the potential to make your dogs itchy, scratchy, vomiting, diarrhoea-filled, sickly, sub-normal shadows of their former selves – ready and waiting for the more serious killers like cancer to arrive.”

Another person on a forum confidently declares: “Vaccines are not good for anyone. That includes pets. Vaccines are a money making scheme that has far too many negative consequences on all of us.” I love a good anti-capitalist jibe as much as anybody, but this is a dangerous level of delusion. These people fail to distinguish between correlation and causation, and resort to scare tactics of naming the dangerous sounding ingredients in the vaccines like formaldehyde and phenol – which could be alarming until you realise that you can find trace amounts of cyanide in apples and arsenic in rice. It’s hard to tell, as with human anti-vaxxers, who genuinely believes it and who is cynically exploiting gullible people for profit, but it’s clear that the pet anti-vaxxer movement is on the rise.

stop the shots

This week, on the very first day of Immunisation Awareness Month, a Brooklyn paper called, fittingly, Brooklyn Paper, reported a spike in the number of people refusing to let vets give their pets vaccinations. In the article, Dr Amy Ford of the Veterinarian Wellness Center of Boerum Hill says “It’s actually much more common in the hipster-y areas. I really don’t know what the reasoning is, they just feel that injecting chemicals into their pet is going to cause problems.” As if you needed another reason to hate hipsters.

This is bad for pets, of course, but it’s also bad for humans. According to the World Health Organisation, dogs are the main source of human rabies deaths, which totals tens of thousands of fatalities every year, mostly in Asia and Africa. In December 2015, WHO, along with the World Organisation for Animal Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations, and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, set a target of 2030 to completely eradicate rabies. Apparently, the hipsters didn’t get the memo.

Michael Gove, the politician (I was going to give his role but it will have probably changed by the time you read this), came out with perhaps the most famous line of the Brexit debate when he said people “have had enough of experts”. What he meant to say, he would later contend, was people “had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong”. But Gove perhaps cut closer to an underlying truth with his truncated version. An increasing number of people seem to simply dismiss the advice of experts on various topics, from vaccinations to climate change. In the era of fake news and post-truth, it feels like an alarming number of people are willing to dismiss hundreds of years of scientific research because they just have a hunch that they know better. It is a toxic mixture of arrogance and idiocy.

Exactly what can be done about this is hard to say. It is difficult to educate those who will not listen to reason. Perhaps the situation can be best summed up by a comment left by a dissenter on a pet anti-vaxxer website:

“You people are just plain stupid. If you really believe this undocumented lie and take it just as is, then you shouldn’t be having pets for starters. You are not qualified to care for yourselves, much less for them. Please don’t reproduce!”



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