The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a large number of people to be so tired of getting vaccinations that some have avoided taking their children for routine shots against a variety of diseases. It has occurred around the world, including in Israel.
Now, a new study has found that US dog owners who harbor mistrust in the safety and efficacy of childhood and adult vaccines are also more likely to hold negative views about vaccinating their four-legged friends.
Public confidence in adult and child vaccines has declined during the pandemic, largely spurred by misperceptions and mistrust in the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. The study led by researchers at Boston University School of Public Health suggests that this hesitancy towards COVID vaccines extends to pet vaccinations, as well –and at worrying levels.
Canine vaccine hesitancy (CVH) can be thought about as dog owners' skepticism about the safety and efficacy of administering routine vaccinations to their dogs. It is problematic not only because it may inspire vaccine refusal – which may in turn facilitate infectious disease spread in both canine and human populations – but because it may contribute to veterinary care provider mental/physical health risks, the researchers wrote.
Published in the journal Vaccine, “Sick as a dog? The prevalence, politicization, and health policy consequences of canine vaccine hesitancy,” the study analyzed a nationally representative sample of adults in the US and found that more than half of people who own dogs expressed some level of CVH.
An estimated 45% of US households own a dog. According to the survey results, nearly 40% of dog owners believe that canine vaccines are unsafe, more than 20% think these vaccines are ineffective, and 30% consider them to be medically unnecessary.
Third of US dog owners believe vaccinations can cause autism to dogs
About 37% of dog owners also believe that the shots could cause their dogs to develop autism, even though there is absolutely no scientific data that validates this risk for either animals or humans.
The study is the first to formally quantify the prevalence, origins, and health policy consequences of concerns about canine vaccination. The survey was conducted between March 30 and April 10 of this year among 2,200 dog owners who answered questions through the research sampling firm YouGov.
Notably, the findings show an indication of a COVID vaccine “spillover” effect in the US – that people who hold negative attitudes toward human vaccines are more likely to hold negative views toward vaccinating their pets. These dog owners are also more likely to oppose policies that encourage widespread rabies vaccination, and less likely to make the effort to vaccinate their pets.
These attitudes are in contrast to most state-level policies in the US where almost all states require domestic dogs to be vaccinated against rabies. The disease still poses a potential health threat, as it carries a near 100% fatality rate, and the canine rabies vaccine is much less accessible in developing countries than in the US and other high-income countries. More than 59,000 people die from canine-mediated rabies around the world each year.
Thus, if fears about pet vaccinations persist or increase, this skepticism could pose serious public health implications for both animals and humans, the researchers say.
“The vaccine spillover effects that we document in our research underscore the importance of restoring trust in human vaccine safety and efficacy,” said study lead and corresponding author Dr. Matt Motta, and assistant professor of health law, policy and management at BUSPH, who studies how anti-science beliefs and attitudes affect health and health policies. “If non-vaccination were to become more common, our pets, veterinarians, and even our friends and family risk coming into contact with vaccine-preventable diseases.”
The American Animal Hospital Association called vaccinations “a cornerstone of canine preventive healthcare” and recommends that all dogs (barring specific medical reasons), receive a core set of vaccines for rabies, distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus, and parainfluenza, and advises that many dogs receive additional “non-core” inoculations for Lyme disease, Bordetella, and other diseases.
Working with animals that are not current on their rabies vaccine poses increased risks for veterinarians and all animal care attendants at a hospital, said study coauthor Dr. Gabriella Motta, a veterinarian at Glenolden Veterinary Hospital in Glenolden, Pa. (and sister of Dr. Matt Motta). She said she encounters an unvaccinated animal or a vaccine-hesitant pet owner every day at work.
“When a staff member is bitten by an animal, there is always concern for infection or trauma, but the seriousness of the situation escalates if the animal is unvaccinated or overdue for its rabies vaccine,” Dr. Gabriella Motta declared. According to guidelines of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture once a veterinary staff member is bitten by an under-vaccinated or unvaccinated animal, the animal must undergo a period of observation, and the staff member is encouraged to receive immediate medical attention.
"These situations place a mental health burden on the person bitten, as well as the rest of the veterinary staff, in an industry that already struggles with widespread burnout, understaffing, and job turnover, she said. But she stressed that the rabies vaccine is overwhelmingly safe and effective.
“With any drug, treatment or vaccine, there is always a risk of adverse effects, but the risk with the rabies vaccine is very low, especially when compared to the risk of rabies infection, which is almost 100% lethal,” Dr. Gabriella Motta added. Pet owners who are concerned about the cost of pet vaccines may be able to seek low-cost options at local vet vaccination clinics.
“It’s important to remember that it once seemed unthinkable that MMR – measles, mumps, and rubella – vaccine mandates in public schools might come under attack in state legislatures across the country,” Dr. Matt Motta says. “And, yet, previous and ongoing research suggests that this is, indeed, the case.”