In almost every state in the union, pets are required to be vaccinated against rabies, and owners are required to keep those vaccinations current. Other state and local jurisdictions require additional types of vaccination for pets, and veterinarians recommend a core set of immunizations to keep pets healthy. These include canine hepatitis, canine parvovirus, and distemper for dogs, and feline panleukopenia (FPV), feline calicivirus (FCV), and feline rhinotracheitis virus/herpesvirus 1 (FVR/FHV-1) for cats.
Smart, caring pet owners make sure their animal family members receive the full schedules of immunizations recommended by their veterinarians, depending on each animal’s exposure risk and individual health needs.
Vaccine hesitancy infects pet owners
Like the vaccinations that have reduced the risk of death and disability for humans exponentially over the past few generations, vaccinating pets used to be an easy decision. But now that many people are developing vaccine hesitancy not only about COVID-19 immunizations but about vaccination in general, some owners are vaccine hesitant when it comes to their pets.
Even pre-COVID-19, “anti-vaxxers” in the United States and other countries were already making inroads into the vaccination rates for both humans and animals. The lies that anti-vax groups disseminate include false warnings that dogs can develop autism after required vaccinations. (Veterinarians point out that “canine autism” simply does not exist.) Non-vaccination rates for pet cats and rabbits have increased as well.
Of course, we’ve also heard how ill-informed celebrities and parents’ group social media influencers falsely attribute autism in children to vaccines, stoking widespread hesitancy. In some areas of the US, anti-vaxxers have even pushed for the loosening of laws mandating vaccinations for pets.
Meanwhile, a 2018 report by the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals showed that in the United Kingdom, about one-quarter of dogs had not completed their recommended vaccinations. Asked why, about 20 percent of the owners who refused said the shots were simply unnecessary.
Experts say that the drop in pet immunization rates is running parallel with the decrease in human vaccinations, and the entire phenomenon is fueled by blatantly inaccurate propaganda.
Vaccines are safe, and they work
We know that vaccines work and that the vaccines in circulation in the Western world today are safe. Vaccination has eradicated smallpox, once one of the most horrific diseases ever to befall humanity. Vaccination has produced dramatic reductions in cases of measles, polio, and other diseases now considered almost eliminated throughout the developed world.
The mRNA vaccines developed to fight COVID-19 were built at lightning speed based on knowledge developed over decades about how coronaviruses work in the body. All the data we have show that these vaccines are highly effective in preventing COVID-19 and blunting its most destructive manifestations in the vast majority of people.
Vaccine hesitancy makes measles rise from its grave
But now, even people who might be willing to vaccinate their pets don’t want to vaccinate themselves or their children. This has led to measles and other previously close-to-conquered diseases making a comeback. Worldwide reported measles cases increased by almost 80 percent over the first two months of 2022, compared to the same period the previous year. This is one of many signs that conditions are ripe for resurgences of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases, according to UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO).
In 2019 the WHO listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the 10 major factors threatening global public health. WHO officials cited inconvenience with accessing vaccines, patient complacency, and general low confidence as the reasons behind the problem. Experts also point to a lack of trust in government authorities as another major reason driving the irrational response.
With an ongoing pandemic, the fact that so many people in the US and across the developed world are fearful about vaccine safety continues to pose a threat not only to individual families but to their communities—and all of us as a human community. There are also plenty of bad-faith politicians, grifters, and dangerously misinformative social media accounts amplifying incorrect information.
Counter with facts and empathy
It’s not that easy to bring proponents back down to earth. Experts note that most people won’t change their minds when confronted with facts.
To combat the flood of incorrect anti-vax information, professionals need to know their patient communities, use trusted messengers to deliver hard facts, and build bonds of trust in good times that will sustain rational and productive community conversations through the bad times.
What can we as individuals do when confronted with anti-vax positions? Most experts point to a few ways to better engage if you’re comfortable doing that:
- Understand that not everyone who hasn’t vaccinated themselves, their child, or their pet is in the “hard” anti-vax camp.
- Build trust with the person you’re talking with, based on where the person is at that moment with their concerns.
- Learn about cognitive bias and how it fuels a very human desire to short-cut the processing of complex information in favor of quick, emotion-based conclusions. Confirmation bias plays an especially big role in vaccine hesitancy, causing us to only accept information that fits our existing beliefs.
- Offer facts and authoritative sources that counter the twisting of scientific evidence to fit preconceived ends.
- Use real people’s stories to make an impact on the heart that data cannot.
If we as a society can successfully push back on vaccine hesitancy, we all win.