Vaccine hesitancy has gone to the dogs ... literally

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published September 7, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey found that over 50% of dog owners hesitate to vaccinate their canine friends.

  • Study authors say the findings are worrisome and could suggest an increased risk of infectious diseases and vaccine-hesitant sentiments spreading through animal and human populations.

Vaccine hesitancy isn’t unique to the COVID-19 vaccines—and it’s not unique to human vaccines, either.

A recent survey found that a slight majority of dog owners may express canine vaccine hesitancy (CVH). The survey heard from more than 900 dog owners, 53% of whom said they considered vaccines administered to dogs to be unsafe, ineffective, and/or unnecessary. 37% 1`1``of this group believed that canine vaccines could cause their dogs to develop cognitive changes, such as “canine autism.”

To each their owner?

How another person cares for their dog may not seem like anyone else's business; however, the study’s authors write that CVH may have rollover effects, such as the spread of vaccine-hesitant sentiments and/or infectious diseases among humans. Additionally, they write that CVH could put veterinarians at risk for developing physical or mental health side effects.

According to the study, CVH is also associated with rabies nonvaccination and “opposition to evidence-based vaccine policies.”.

Importance of rabies vaccinations

Rabies is an often-deadly disease that can strike mammals, including wildlife, pets, and humans. Humans can develop rabies if they are bitten by a rabid animal—and human exposure to rabid dogs is the leading cause of nearly all human rabies deaths worldwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Dog rabies is significantly less common in the United States than in some other countries, largely due to laws requiring dogs to be vaccinated for rabies. Currently, dogs make up 1% of rabid animals reported each year in the US, according to the CDC. (Bats are the leading cause of human rabies deaths in the US.)

The study’s authors worry that CVH, specifically, could increase transmission risks.

Can doctors and veterinarians improve pet vaccine turnout?

For doctors, addressing vaccine hesitancy in patients could have rollover effects on how these patients care for their dogs. CVH may also have rollover effects on veterinarians.

Michael Thompson, DVM, a veterinarian and pet food safety expert who is the leading veterinarian and founder of Pets Food Safety, says, “there's definitely a correlation between human and pet vaccine hesitancy.”

“In my experience, owners who are skeptical about vaccines in general often display the

same hesitancy for their pets,” Thompson adds. “Just as misinformation fuels human vaccine hesitancy, misinformation is also prevalent around pet vaccines.”

He estimates that a sizable minority—about 15% to 20%—of his clients express hesitancy around vaccinating their dogs.

When these conversations come up, Thompson says he tends to “address vaccine hesitancy in dog owners by educating them about the importance of vaccinations in preventing serious, often-fatal, diseases in dogs.”

“I try to draw parallels with human immunizations to make this issue more relatable,” he says. “Clear communication, evidential statistics, and emphasizing the role vaccines play in overall pet health are my primary tools to counteract these fears.

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