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.