- There are roughly 90 million pet dogs in the U.S., the vast majority of which are vaccinated against severe diseases like rabies, distemper, and parvovirus.
- A new study, however, shows that 53% of dog owners agree with one of three anti-vaccine positions: that the risks outweigh the benefits, that most dog vaccines are not necessary, or that some canine vaccines can cause dogs to develop cognitive issues.
- If these views continue to spread and result in reduced vaccination rates, we could witness the return of rabies, along with a resurgence of other dog diseases once relegated to obscurity.
Remember when thousands of pet dogs in the U.S. contracted rabies every year, which resulted in the deaths of more than a hundred Americans annually after they were bitten and infected with the lethal virus? No, you don’t. Why? Because that happened more than a hundred years ago.
Since the middle of the 20th century, dog owners in the U.S. have vaccinated their beloved pets against rabies along with a host of other concerning diseases. As a result, canine rabies was eliminated in the country in 2007, and there’s an average of just two human rabies infections each year in the U.S., almost always originating from wildlife.
But this public health triumph could start to unravel if a concerning trend continues to worsen: Dog owners are increasingly “vaccine hesitant.”
We vaccinate dogs for a reason
A survey of 2,200 American adults conducted earlier this year by a trio of researchers in partnership with the sampling firm YouGov shows that 53% of dog owners agree with one of three anti-vaccine positions: (1) that the risks outweigh the benefits; (2) that most dog vaccines are not medically necessary; or (3) that some canine vaccines can cause dogs to develop cognitive issues like autism. A sizable 37% of surveyed dog owners agreed with that last point, a likely spillover effect of the common, yet erroneous, assertion that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism in young children.
The canine rabies vaccine is perhaps the most vital vaccine administered to dogs. The lyssaviruses that cause rabies attack the brain, resulting in paralysis, confusion, aggression, paranoia, hallucinations, and a disturbing fear of water. Death occurs in almost all cases once symptoms start. In the 122 countries where canine rabies is not well controlled, dog bites are the primary way that humans are infected. The CDC reports that 59,000 people worldwide die from rabies each year, and nearly half are children.
The roughly 90 million dogs kept as pets in the U.S. gain a herd immunity from rabies through vaccination much the way humans do from other vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles and polio. For this herd immunity to take effect, roughly 70% of pet dogs must be vaccinated. Thankfully, as the survey shows, we remain well above that number. Though vaccine-hesitant beliefs were surprisingly common, 84% of dog owners replied that their pets were up-to-date on their rabies vaccine.
Other vaccines are also highly important if dog owners value their pets’ health and well-being. Canine distemper has a 50% mortality rate, and even if a pup survives, it can leave it stricken with occasional seizures and chronic breathing problems for the reminder of its life. Parvovirus attacks the gastrointestinal system, causing severe lethargy, bloody diarrhea, and vomiting. Death occurs in 91% of untreated cases. Highly effective vaccines are available which prevent both of these conditions.
The return of rabies?
Anti-vaccine sentiments have risen in the U.S. in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Parents and politicians are now questioning whether once rock-solid policies like school-mandated vaccinations should remain in place. If these anti-public health viewpoints leach into the minds of dog owners and result in reduced vaccination rates, we could witness the return of rabies, along with a resurgence of other dog diseases once relegated to obscurity.