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Ask A Vet: Are We Giving Unneeded Vaccinations?

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I get asked almost every day about vaccine guidelines for cats. Stories about vaccines causing adverse reactions or being linked to horrific complications go viral, then I see stories on TV about infants sick with measles and polio making comeback. Vaccines have kept our society healthy for a long time and some very horrible diseases have become rare. But are they still necessary?

I have heard so much controversy that I have spent significant time and thought formulating the vaccine recommendations at my hospital, weighing out risks and benefits. The barrage of suggestions that we, as a society, overdo vaccines had even caused me to look more closely at how I vaccinate my human child.

I could certainly bore you with statistics regarding the chances of contracting preventable disease versus the chance of a bad reaction from vaccination, but my personal story made a bigger impact on me and perhaps it will for you as well.

I adopted a kitten. He was a mixed breed kitten that looked Siamese (born from a barn cat that one of my assistants, happened across and gave to me). Everyone who knows me knows that I have wanted a Siamese cat for over 20 years. I have just never been able to get one because I want to adopt and not shop. I was elated.

This little kitten accompanied me and the dog to work each morning and back home each night. When I adopted him (like the infants at Disneyland that got measles recently), he was not old enough to start his vaccines when he came to me.

One day when the kitten was at work with me, a lady came rushing in with a very tiny orange kitten, near to death and begged us to treat him even though she had just found him. Being animal lovers, we rushed to his aid and began emergency treatments. Everyone in the hospital did their part to rouse the stray baby kitten, but he breathed his last in our arms. I remember having the thought that my new baby kitten was in the building, so we all washed our hands after the sick kitty since we did not know what was wrong.

Not long after that, my kitten started to have loose stool and act a little sick. He did not want to eat or play. I started running tests and instituting treatments. I was not overly concerned because like everyone, I figured that all the really bad diseases are so over-vaccinated for that they have been eliminated, right? As my kitten spiraled sicker and I knew I was doing everything I could, I decided to take him to the local referral center. I had ruled out and treated for all the routine stuff and I thought that I needed more care than my general practice can give-24 hour care.

When I arrived with him, they began more tests and were very kind, seeing that I was torn between being a cat mom and being a vet. (Sometimes you just need some separation when it is your fur child and I guess all vets know about this.) I was attached to this kitten because he had required around the clock care for several days and so he was with me all the time.

I was shocked to learn that my kitten (and very likely the little dead kitten) was infected with Panleukopenia. Feline Panleukopenia is a part of the “core” vaccines suggested for all cats and I had never diagnosed this disease before in 17 years of practice.

You see, when all cats were regularly vaccinated, it had become rare. My kitten was not quite old enough to have been vaccinated yet, but if all adult cats were being treated as they should, it would still be a thing of the past. My kitten’s mother would have given him some immunity to carry him through had she been well vaccinated.  The dead kitten would not be dead at all if his mother had been vaccinated and this whole painful scenario would still be only in textbooks.

My kitten could not be saved. After his case, I saw seven more. The only survivors were those that had received at least one vaccination. All the others died. I have a painful and personal answer to the question about whether we as a profession are over-vaccinating and the answer for me is no.

It is important however to be sure that your vet is aware of your concern. I am still very careful about the brands and types of vaccines I recommend and give and I follow published guidelines, tailoring the vaccine protocol to each individual cat and her lifestyle. Communicating with your own vet is your safest course of action. He or she will know what disease are greatest risk in your area and help you decide which vaccines are most appropriate for your cat.

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