Canine Vaccine Hesitancy: The Fight Against Anti-vaccine Misinformation Goes On

For many years now, I have fought against the encroachment of anti-vaccine misinformation and fears into veterinary medicine. I have written blog posts and journal articles on the subject, and I’ve discussed vaccine hesitancy in podcasts, on YouTube, and at veterinary conferences. 

It has long been clear that some pet owners have been frightened by proponents of unscientific anti-vaccine ideas. They are exposed, like all of us, to misinformation from activists opposing vaccines for human use, such as disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield and the Disinformation Dozen, well-known sources of bad information such as Mercola, RFK Jr., and the Bollingers. Unfortunately, there is also no shortage of vets and others in the animal health world also contributing to excessive and harmful anxiety about vaccines in pets. Anecdotally, many vets feel that pet owners have become more hesitant about appropriate vaccination of their dogs and cats.

Now, we have a bit of research data that, unfortunately, reinforces this concern.

Motta M, Motta G, Stecula D. Sick as a dog? The prevalence, politicization, and health policy consequences of canine vaccine hesitancy (CVH). Vaccine. 2023 Aug 26:S0264-410X(23)01015-0. doi: 10.1016/j.vaccine.2023.08.059. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 37640567.

This study surveyed 2,200 adults in the U.S. and evaluated the presence of Canine Vaccine Hesitancy (CVH), defined as, “dog owners’ skepticism about the safety and efficacy of administering routine vaccinations to their dogs.” The findings were a clear warning to vets and other animal lovers about the danger of anti-vaccine misinformation and the importance of speaking up and providing the public with honest, reliable, fact-based information about vaccination.

As the authors state, “a large minority of dog owners consider vaccines administered to dogs to be unsafe (37%), ineffective (22%), and/or unnecessary (30%). A slight majority of dog owners (53%) endorse at least one of these three positions.” 

Also worrisome was the finding that 48% of dog owners opposed mandatory rabies vaccination and agreed with the statement, “The decision to vaccinate dogs that are kept as pets should be left up to individual pet owners.” This echoes powerfully the kind of anti-public health position that emerged to oppose vaccination for SARS-CoV-2, and which led to hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone.

The study also looked at factors that might be associated with CVH. Endorsement of misinformation about human vaccines was a predictor of CVH, whereas a college education was associated with a lower risk of hesitancy about canine vaccination. 

These results, while depressing, are not surprising. We are in a period of significant mistrust and misinformation about science generally, and there is no reason to expect pet owners or veterinary medicine would be exempt from this problem. The study is also just a preliminary effort at assessing a complex and multifactorial problem. However, this first step at gathering real data about the issue of veterinary vaccine hesitancy is an important one. It should serve as a powerful warning to veterinarians and others who value animal welfare that we cannot afford to be complacent nor quiet. 

We need to advocate strongly and constantly for science-based pet healthcare and oppose the misinformation and propaganda that needlessly frightens well-meaning pet owners. Veterinarians are still a trusted resource for pet owners, and we can help them make sound decisions for their pets. Though there are no simple solutions, effective communication about science is critical and can be effective at correcting misconceptions and diminishing the impact of misinformation.

For pet owners who are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines for dogs and cats, here are some resources with reliable, science-based information to help you. You also deserve an open, honest conversation with your vet based on scientific evidence, and I encourage everyone to ask their pets’ healthcare providers to address your concerns and helpo you choose the best care for your pets.

SkeptVet Vaccine Resources

AAHA Vaccination Guidelines for Dogs

AAFP/AAHA Vaccination Guidelines for Cats

WSAVA Vaccination Guidelines

Veterinary Partner: Vaccination Information for Dog & Cat Owners

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6 Responses to Canine Vaccine Hesitancy: The Fight Against Anti-vaccine Misinformation Goes On

  1. art william malernee says:

    as a evidence based medicine preacher, once defined by a New York Times medical journalist as a discipline that insist on proof that traditional medical practices really work, what can I do other than ask and wait to see the randomized controlled trials? Re vaccinating apparently health pets and people based on how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun will continue to produce bad outcomes resulting in decreasing compliance most of the time in those people who do not believe in astrology. Now vaccination has become a political football in the USA. I can usually tell if a client is a Democrat or Republican now by their answers to questions about vaccination. Vaccinating based on RCTs should increase vaccination compliance and get the politics out of vaccination both in human and veterinary medicine.

  2. skeptvet says:

    So many problems with this argument, Art. RCTs are not the only form of evidence that matters (see the Science-based Medicine post of Methodolotry and COVID as an example). They are complex, expensive, and often unethical in the absence of true equipoise, and veterinary medicine would not exist if we expected to have RCTs for every intervention. They also can easily produce worthless results (see all the RCTs “proving” homeopathy works). It is the preponderance of the best available evidence that matters, not the mythical perfect evidence.

    How would you design RCTs to identify the ideal revaccination interval for every individual dog? Would you subject thousands of dogs to disease challenges at regular intervals and then pick the interval that gave the best protection on average? How would you then account for individual variation in immune response, variable virulence of pathogens, changing pathogen characteristics over time, etc? The waste of resources and harm top study subjects would be enormous and unjustifiable.

    The AAHA guidelines are an imperfect but reasonable starting point based on the preponderance of the best evidence. They change over time, as the evidence and circumstances change. Other approaches may also be equally reasonable, but the problem here is not about the imperfect evidence but about irrational fear of adverse effects most of which have never been shown to be real that is discouraging needed vaccination. It may be more rational to give, for example, a Parvo vaccine every 5 years or only until 8 years of aqe, or even only once after full maturity than to give it every year. But there is no evidence, despite decades of concern, that giving it too often is causing serious harm, and if the fear of this harm leads to not giving it at all, we get a resurgence of Parvo which harms and kills dogs.

  3. Jarah says:

    In my experience, in patent law and as a scientist, I haven’t found that logical arguments and presentation of data to be effective. I think that it’s more of an emotional issue for the anti-vaxxers (and anti-GMOers and anti-patent people). It’s difficult to counter, and the best that happens by presenting logic and data is swaying those on the fence. Perhaps explaining the unintended consequences of their actions-or nonactions- can help convince. I spent many years, frustrating years, of my career trying to bring rationality to irrational beliefs. I hope that you will be more successful.

  4. art malernee dvm says:

    How would you design RCTs to identify the ideal revaccination interval for every individual >>>
    Maybe someday with some new technology. Even RFK jr is not calling for that. Why not just extend the RCT study that provided the public proof the initial vaccination was efficacious? If a treatment works it can be proven to work. We do not need to know why the treatment works or even why the first vaccine did not last but a vaccination in my opinion should be proven to work if it is
    1. promoted in the marketplace
    2. given to clinically healthy patients.
    3. has a revaccination label
    If a patient is sick its somewhat different but if the patient is clinically healthy and you let vaccine companies label the vaccine bottle “give every year” without proof the patient will benefit from yearly revaccination the public will not support our vaccination policies and vaccine compliance will drop.

  5. skeptvet says:

    Individuals with strong beliefs certainly don’t change those beliefs readily just because they are presented with contrary facts. And misinformation spreads faster and farther than nuanced, fact-based information. However, there is evidence that presenting facts to correct misinformation is useful and part of an overall strategy to reduce the impact of that misinformation. It does help influence folks without firmly established beliefs, and without it we simply cede the field altogether and leave people investigating controversial questions with the impression that misinformation is the only perspective. It’s a tough disease with no cure, but there ar treatments that can help!

    e.g. Does Debunking Work? Correcting COVID-19 Misinformation on Social Media*
    Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformation

  6. Arthur Malernee dvm says:

    Annual Revaccination started i human medicine first. At least they Re formulate the vaccine in humans every year so it’s not exactly the same vaccine. The vaccines your pet is getting next year is the same vaccine it got this year.

    “We can’t rely on logic or common sense. Assumptions may seem very convincing, but they must be tested with controlled scientific studies.” —Harriet “SkepDoc” Hall, MD

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