Rabies Vaccines & Aggression in Dogs-Pure Pseudoscientific Fear Mongering

One of the most bizarre manifestations of pseudoscientific and anti-scientific thinking, particularly popular among homeopaths, is the insistence that the most effective preventative healthcare intervention in history, vaccination, is actually a dangerous and destructive poison foisted on the unsuspecting public by ignorant or evil doctors. In the human health arena, this is most dramatically seen in the persistent belief that vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming evidence this is not true, and in the resurgence of preventable diseases  in areas where misguided parents choose to deny effective immunization to their children.

Veterinarians and pet owners, sadly, are no more resistant to nonsense and unscientific fear mongering about vaccines. I have written before about misguided vets who encourage clients to expose their animal companions to potentially deadly infectious diseases rather than make appropriate use of safe and effective vaccines. No one denies that vaccines can have undesirable effects. Most rare and minor, and some are rare but very serious. However, the overwhelming majority of the claims made by anti-vaccine activists about vaccine safety are pure fantasy unsupported by any real scientific evidence. A recent example, pointed out to me by a reader, illustrates the shameless use of distortion, misuse of irrelevant references to real science, and pure invention and lies to generate irrational fear of vaccines.

An article from the usually unreliable source Dogs Naturally Magazine, has been making the rounds on Facebook with claims that rabies vaccination causes violent behavior in dogs. I am hesitant to discuss this claim simply because it is like discussing the intellectual merits of creationism or alien abduction—the very act of refuting it makes it seem like an idea that is sane enough to deserve a response. Unfortunately, such nonsense, however ludicrous, can still mislead pet owners into making dangerous choices for their pets, so I will briefly point out why this article deserves to be dismissed out of hand.

Emotionally manipulative use of anecdotes-
The article tells tragic stories of people injured by their dogs. As horrible as these experiences are, they have absolutely no bearing on the truth of the claim that rabies vaccine were responsible for the behavior. There are thousands of dog attacks worldwide every year and the overwhelming majority of them do not follow any kind of vaccination. To claim that the occurrence of vaccination before such an attack is evidence for a causal relationship is an elementary error in logic that is inexcusable in anyone with even a rudimentary scientific education. It is as ridiculous as believing that we cause it to rain by washing our car.

The purpose of these stories is not to prove anything, since they cannot, but simply to manipulate people into feeling fear.

Self-serving conspiracy theorizing-
The article acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of veterinarians, with extensive training and experience in veterinary medicine, reject the theory that rabies vaccination causes aggression. Instead of recognizing that this might be a reason to question the hypothesis, the article suggests that the few who believe in the idea are the only ones smart enough, brave enough, or otherwise capable of seeing a supposedly obvious relationship. The majority who reject it must be either unconscionably ignorant or deliberately ignoring the truth despite the danger to their patients and clients.

The sheer arrogance of this kind of thinking is stunning. Certainly, widespread belief in an idea is not incontrovertible evidence that idea is true. The majority is wrong about things all the time (which the folks at Dogs Naturally conveniently ignore when they are claiming we should accept alternative therapies because lots of people think they work). However, when almost all the experts in a scientific field agree and only a few practitioners of pseudoscientific nonsense like homeopathy think the idea is true, that is reason to at least ask the question, “What’s the evidence?”

There is no evidence-
Which brings us to the other ways in which the article tries to support its fantastic claim. The simple fact is that there is no scientific evidence to back up the claim, so the article cheats and tries to imply that other claims which are true somehow imply theirs is too. For example, lots of quotes from the Merk manual (a rather old-fashioned medical reference pretty universally ignored by real doctors and scientists) about encephalitis. This article, however, has nothing at all to do with rabies vaccination. It’s like saying that because diabetes exists it must be true that wearing blue causes diabetes.

The article also cites references (most 30-40 years old) to neurologic disease cause by distemper vaccines (NOT rabies vaccines). This is a rare and acute disease caused by insufficient weakening of the distemper virus used in the vaccine and has nothing to do with rabies vaccination (a killed viral vaccine) or with any of the other suggested causes for the mythological disease of rabies-vaccine induced aggression.  The same is true for the citation of a forty-year old Italian journal article on vaccination and epilepsy and all of the other references to irrelevant scientific research that has nothing to do with the claims made in this article.

The article supports its claims with references to other disproven and ridiculous claims-
As already mentioned, the claim that vaccines cause autism is complete nonsense that has been thoroughly disproven, and the main research paper suggesting this relationship has been withdrawn for fraud and its author stripped of his medical license. Citing this idea and its supporters in defense of the claims made about rabies vaccines in this article is itself a strong reason to ignore those claims since their proponents clearly will believe anything no matter what the evidence.

The same is true for the claim that veterinary homeopaths have an explanation for the problem in the form of the “Rabies Miasm.” A miasm is a completely bogus idea invented in a time when people still believed demonic possession was real and bloodletting was a safe and effective treatment for disease. It has all the scientific legitimacy of astrology or, for that matter, the rest of the theoretical nonsense that underlies the practice of homeopathy, which I have discussed many times before.  The symptoms listed as supposed signs of Rabies Miasm are a hodgepodge of things that, like any good horoscope, one can see as applicable to absolutely every patient with any disease to one extent or another.

In addition to referencing Andrew Wakefield and Richard Pitcairn, both classic quacks promoting pseudoscientific alternatives to real medicine, the article quotes Russell Blaylock, a former neurosurgeon who has become a full-time crusader against scientific medicine and in favor of a wide variety of ridiculous pseudoscientific ideas, and Harold Buttram, another rabid anti-vaccine activist. These are not “experts” or reliable sources but ideological crusaders opposed to the majority not only of scientists and doctors but the majority of the actual evidence concerning vaccine safety. Referencing them simply reinforces the extremist and anti-science nature of this article and its claims.

Now undoubtedly, people will make comments on this post like “How can you be sure rabies vaccine doesn’t cause aggression?”  I am happy to admit the idea is not impossible. However, the decision whether or not to change a well-established medical practice that has had great benefits is not whether concerns about it are possible, but rather whether there is any reason to believe they are justified. In this case, there is not.

Rabies is a deadly disease which has caused enormous suffering and death for humans and animals alike for thousands of years. Rabies vaccination has virtually eliminated this problem for dogs in developed countries, and for the people those dogs would kill if they were afflicted with rabies. And in the decades over which this has been accomplished, there has been no reliable scientific evidence to suggest the vaccine causes the problems claimed in this article. As I have shown, these claims are made by ideological extremists who support many conclusively disproven ideas, and they have offered no evidence to back up their claims, only emotionally manipulative anecdotes, irrelevant and misleading references to unrelated science, and the opinions of unreliable believers in pseudoscience.

This article is not a reason to abandon rabies vaccination or expose your pet and your family to the risk of this terrible disease. Please do not be frightened or misled by these false arguments and scare tactics. Rabies vaccines are not perfect, but they are incredibly safe and very effective, and they save lives, both human and canine. Any change in our use of these vaccines should be based on sound science, not hysteria and pseudoscience.


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24 Responses to Rabies Vaccines & Aggression in Dogs-Pure Pseudoscientific Fear Mongering

  1. Robert Michalski says:

    Thanks for the response to this article.

  2. skeptvet says:

    You’re welcome. It’s already spawned hate tweets on Twitter, so I appreciate the positive feedback as well. 🙂

  3. Julie Rice says:

    Yes, thanks for this article. I get so tired of all the misinformation, lies and hysteria that’s out there being constantly repeated. Will be sharing this on Facebook.

  4. rita says:

    Tell it to these people: https://www.facebook.com/AMRRIC who are really on the front line.

  5. v.t. says:

    How anyone involved in writing that POS article on dogsnaturally, can sleep at night is beyond me.

    Of course, ONLY homeopaths and holistic practitioners recognize “rabies miasm”, what a great marketing tool to scare the bejeesus out of your clients in which to sell your bogus crap (nosodes, homeopathy, blah blah).

  6. Sarah says:

    Thank you for your article. You don’t mention your thoughts about the Rabies Challenge Fund & Study, including Dr. Dobbs & Dr. Schultz’s work and articles. I feel this would be a very important area to mention in any article about rabies vaccines. I would love to hear your opinion about their work in progress.
    Dr. Schultze’s bio.
    or Dr. Jean Dodds

  7. skeptvet says:

    I have mixed feelings. I agree with Dr. Schultz that the scientific evidence suggests rabies, and many other vaccines, provide longer duration of immunity than their labels indicate, and having scientific proof of this would encourage more veterinarians to vaccinate less often. I support this because of course good medicine means not giving unnecessary treatments. So I hope the effort is successful in that respect.

    That said, as I’ve indicated I think the fear generated around vaccines is wildly exaggerated and out of proportion to the real risk, and I think it discourages people from appropriate vaccination. To the extent that this effort is sometimes promoted using this kind of unjustified fear, I think that is not in the best interests of our pets.

    The final judgment on this effort will, of course, rest on the results. If good scientific data is generated which makes vaccination practices more evidence-based, that will be all to the good. If the quality of the data is poor or if it is used to promote unjustified fear of vaccination, then it will do more harm than good. Only time will tell.

  8. DianeM says:

    Wow. Isn’t it strange how people with no education or experience on a subject feel qualified to write articles about it, and even stranger how many people will believe without question what they write, as long as it is anti-“establishment”.

    I think critical thinking needs to be made a required component high school education before the whole country goes to hell.

  9. v.t. says:

    DianeM, amen.

    The majority of those people have never seen a pet suffer from rabies, distemper, etc. I’m willing to bet had they ever seen a case of a fatal disease, they’d be changing their tune in a heartbeat.

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  11. Kate says:

    I have a one year old dog who has a history of becoming sick after vaccines…so much so that the vet delayed neutering til he was much older because of uncertainty how he might react to anesthesia. Fortunately he did great postop. Monday he had his boosters, and for the last 4 days has repeatedly attacked my senior dog so that now they are confined to seperate parts of the house. I have been so baffled by this sudden onset in a sweet natured dog that has been known to eat and drink out of the same bowl as his brother. After remembering his previous poor experiences post immunization, I asked the vet if there could be a connection, but that was summarily dismissed. I saw some links about vaccines/aggression but nothing scientific. I am not looking to quit vaccines but I am desperate for an answer, and now squirming after reading this.

  12. skeptvet says:

    While I am sorry for your experience, I have to say that “desperate for an answer” is a state of mind that will make you vulnerable to seeing causes for your problem that aren’t there. The fact that one event follows another does not reliably suggest the first event caused the second. I don’t make it rain by washing my car, even if sometimes it seems that way. If things happen in a suspicious order often enough, they deserve to be investigated, but only scientific evidence of the right kind, with controls for all sorts of sources of error, can tell us if there really is a relationship other than coincidence. Millions of dogs throughout the world have been given these vaccines for decades, and no evidence of this kind of relationship has turned up, only coincidental anecdotes used to justify making people afraid of vaccination.

    If I could ethically make up some other cause for your problem to reassure you, I would. Lots of alternative vets do just that. But the reality is that sometimes we don’t know why bad things happen. I don’t know what has caused your dog’s behavior change, only that there is absolutely no reason to believe vaccination had anything to do with it. I hope for the best for you and your beloved pets, and I believe that they are better off for being vaccinated.

  13. Andrew May says:

    You mention in your article that rabies vaccines are not perfect. What “imperfections” were you considering and are they relevant to or somewhat comparable to the alleged “miasma” symptoms. If they are distinguishable, then why don’t you make the distinction. Also, if anecdotes suggest an association with a constellation of symptoms and a vaccine, then what studies should be undertaken to evaluate the association? I share your criticism of the dogsnaturally article. however, on the topic of vaccine, and more significantly diet, I don’t see the veterinary community encouraging studies that might result in less use of drugs or perhaps less reliance on commercial foods as much as is needed for it to maintain the trust of its clients.

  14. skeptvet says:

    By imperfect I mean that rabies vaccines, like any other, can have adverse effects. Local and systemic allergic reactions have been documented, though they are uncommon. There is some possibility the vaccine may be increase the risk of specific immune-mediated diseases, though the evidence for this is weak. Some rabies vaccines have been associated with rare tumors in cats, though so have other vaccines, medications, and even injuries. And some individuals fail to respond and generate complete immunity after vaccination. None of these, however, have any relationship to the vague notion of “miasma,” in which virtually any disease can be blamed on vaccination without any scientific evidence of a real connection. The adverse events that do occur have been identified through careful scientific research (you can find some of the papers cited in the AAHA and AVMA vaccine guidelines). Anecdotes can provide hypotheses for controlled evaluation, but it requires systematic observational or interventional studies to confirm associations and causal relationships. The details of what kind of studies and how they should be designed and conducted are complex, which is why there is an entire field of science devoted to this (epidemiology).

    The absence of high-quality evidence for many questions in veterinary medicine is due to a variety of factors. Obviously, a great deal less money is available for research compared with human healthcare, and there is virtually no support from government for such research except where it impacts human health and food safety. there is also far less regulation of veterinary medicine, and very little financial incentive for the kind of malpractice litigation that occurs in human medicine, and which drives some of the use of research evidence in validating specific clinical practices. It is easy for people with concerns about conventional veterinary practices to complain about them, but this doesn’t solve the problem that without good research evidence we don’t know if those concerns are valid or not. Organizations like the Morris Animal Foundation and the RCVS Knowledge Group are doing fantastic things to improve the evidence base in veterinary medicine, but it is a slow process.

  15. Andrew May says:

    thanks for your informative reply. One issue of management of my beauceron’s care relates to preventative management for gastric torsion for an old dog of a large deep chested breed. I understand there is a study from Purdue university showing that kibble as a feed correlates to more incidents of gastric torsion than either canned food, but that a home-made cooked diet was best of all. Given that kibble takes more time to digest than other less processed foods, has higher volume, and may result in gas, common sense suggests that a good presumption would be not to feed kibble to an at risk dog. I do not see this reflected in conventional vet. med. sources which encourage small meals, etc. also as a lay person I can’t tell if the Purdue study exists or is a legend. I recognize that even if it does exist it is but one study. I am suspicious that the vet. profession, with all the medicalized food it sells, is neither equipped nor motivated to help me with a nutritional plan. I have seen you refer to vet. nutritionists and maybe I need a remote consultation. I do suspect however that the benefits of non-traditional diets for this particular risk factor are under researched.

  16. skeptvet says:

    In terms of your specific question, there is limited research concerning dietary risk factors for GDV (gastric torsion or bloat). Several studies have been done, but they are pretty weak designs (especially the internet-based owner survey), so they can’t be viewed as high-quality evidence. Lots of people make claims about alternative feeding approaches, and it always seems to me like they should be the ones expected to provide the data to back these up.

    J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2006 Jan-Feb;42(1):28-36.
    The effect of ingredients in dry dog foods on the risk of gastric dilatation-volvulus in dogs.
    Raghavan M1, Glickman NW, Glickman LT.
    Author information
    • 1Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, School of Veterinary Medicine, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-2027, USA.
    Using dry dog food label information, the hypothesis was tested that the risk of gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) increases with an increasing number of soy and cereal ingredients and a decreasing number of animal-protein ingredients among the first four ingredients. A nested case-control study was conducted with 85 GDV cases and 194 controls consuming a single brand and variety of dry food. Neither an increasing number of animal-protein ingredients (P=0.79) nor an increasing number of soy and cereal ingredients (P=0.83) among the first four ingredients significantly influenced GDV risk. An unexpected finding was that dry foods containing an oil or fat ingredient (e.g., sunflower oil, animal fat) among the first four ingredients were associated with a significant (P=0.01), 2.4-fold increased risk of GDV. These findings suggest that the feeding of dry dog foods that list oils or fats among the first four label ingredients predispose a high-risk dog to GDV.

    J Am Anim Hosp Assoc. 2004 May-Jun;40(3):192-203.
    Diet-related risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus in dogs of high-risk breeds.
    Raghavan M1, Glickman N, McCabe G, Lantz G, Glickman LT.
    Author information
    • 1Departments of Veterinary Pathobiology, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907-2027, USA.
    A nested case-control study was conducted among 1634 dogs with complete diet information in a 5-year prospective study to determine diet-related risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV). Cases included 106 dogs that developed GDV; controls included 212 dogs without GDV that were frequency matched to cases by year of GDV onset. Proportionate energy consumed from major food types and from carbohydrates was determined. Dogs were categorized as consuming either a low volume or high volume of food based on the median number of cups of food fed per kg of body weight per meal. Dogs fed a larger volume of food per meal were at a significantly (P<0.05) increased risk of GDV, regardless of the number of meals fed daily. For both large- and giant-breed dogs, the risk of GDV was highest for dogs fed a larger volume of food once daily.
    An Internet-based survey of risk factors for surgical gastric dilatation-volvulus in dogs.
    J Am Vet Med Assoc. June 15, 2012;240(12):1456-62.
    Marko Pipan1; Dorothy Cimino Brown; Carmelo L Battaglia; Cynthia M Otto
    1Section of Critical Care, Department of Clinical Studies-Philadelphia, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.
    Companion Notes

    Article Abstract
    OBJECTIVE: To evaluate risk factors for gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) in a large number of privately owned dogs across a wide geographic area.
    DESIGN: Internet-based, cross-sectional study.
    ANIMALS: 2,551 privately owned dogs.
    PROCEDURES: A questionnaire addressed dog-specific, management, environmental, and personality-associated risk factors for GDV in dogs. Respondents were recruited through the posting of the electronic link to the questionnaire on websites for dog owners; the information was also disseminated at meetings of dog owners and via newsletters, e-mail lists for dog owners and breeders, owner-oriented dog publications, and e-mails forwarded by participants. Descriptive statistics and logistic regression analysis were performed.
    RESULTS: Factors significantly associated with an increased risk of GDV were being fed dry kibble, anxiety, residence in the United Kingdom, being born in the 1990s, being a family pet, and spending at least 5 hours a day with the owner. Factors associated with a decreased risk of GDV were playing with other dogs and running the fence after meals, fish and egg dietary supplements, and spending equal time indoors and outdoors. A significant interaction between sex and neuter status was observed, with sexually intact females having the highest risk for GDV.
    CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE: In dogs with a high risk of GDV, regular moderate daily and postprandial activity appeared to be beneficial. Feeding only commercial dry dog food may not be the best choice for dogs at risk; however, supplements with fish or eggs may reduced this risk. The effect of neuter status on GDV risk requires further characterization.

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  18. Ron says:

    I wish there was a better funded effort to study the immunity factor and the time span these vaccines might be effective. It seems with vast amounts of money and being one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the country the AVMA could provide a better service in this regards.

  19. Ron says:

    “Veterinary practices in the U.S. are essentially “vaccine based”. There is also no requirement that veterinarians provide clients with informed consent and disclosure for vaccine health risks. Veterinary medical practices in the U.S. have become customized to burdening clients with an ever increasing vaccine schedule”
    “In November of 1996, the AVMA and affiliated members initiated several studies to find out why 160,000 cats each year in the USA develop terminal cancer at their vaccine injection sites. The goals of the Vaccine-Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force (VAFSTF) were to investigate the epidemiology, etiopathogenesis, treatment and prevention of these malignancies and disseminate information to veterinarians and cat owners. [38] Feline, vaccine-induced cancer has been acknowledged by veterinarian associations world wide. However, the response from the AVMA was to “carry on vaccinating until we find out why vaccines are killing cats and which cats are most likely to die.” In the United States, they simply vaccinate cats in the tail or leg in order to amputate when the cancer appears. [39] According to the AVMA:


    I also found this site below of two Conventional Vets. from Cornell university. I found their views interesting, for one they don’t parrot the usual memorized text book responses and also their bravery in risking the wrath of those of their fellows and those who control the industry.
    “Let me say that we do believe in certain vaccinations in certain scenarios as stated above. Vaccinations can be a powerful tool in disease prevention. They are not however without significant risk.”

  20. skeptvet says:

    The AVMA doesn’t do much in the way of research. A big problem in veterinary medicine is the absence of funding for research. Academic institutions fund some, non-profits liek Morris Animal Foundation fund some, and most is paid for by companies trying to market a product, which is useful but comes with some risk of funding bias.

  21. skeptvet says:

    What you’re doing is setting up what is called a Straw Man. You are making stuff up about how mainstream vets work and then attacking that.

    There is nothing “vaccine-based” about my practice or the majority of science-based veterinary practices. The risks of vaccines are discussed with clients, and significant changes have occurred in the use of vaccines in order to reduce these risks. The change has not been universal, butit has been significant and widespread.

    The association between fibrosarcomas and vaccines was identified by scrupulous scientific research done by conventional vets, not predicted or identified by anti-vaccine or alternative vets. And the vaccines that were most clearly associated with fibrosarcomas have been largely abandoned and replaced by vaccines that probably are less likley to cause this diseases, though it takes many years to prove that is true.

    You consistently misrepresent the veterinary profession and leave out important information, all creating a false and negative impression of how veterinary medicine actually works. This is an ideologically driven narrative, not an accurate picture of the pros and cons of specific practices.

  22. Ron says:

    Dr,. I didn’t make it up or say it. That was from the link posted and I believe if correct was made by a Veterinarian.

  23. Shannon Kelly says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to provide clear thought and information on these topics, Skeptvet. I just learned of your site from a friend’s post and I can’t stop reading. I appreciate all the work you have done to lay out the evidence and arguments, with explanations of how the scientific process works, and how to evaluate information. We need science more than ever!

  24. skeptvet says:

    Thanks so much! It’s always nice to hear the site is useful.

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