The anti-vaccination movement is going to the dogs. Recent survey data has suggested that a substantial proportion of American dog owners have doubts about their pets’ vaccines, including the rabies shot. Rabies is almost always fatal if not treated promptly, and routine canine vaccination has helped make pet and human cases of the viral disease incredibly rare in the U.S. and other countries.
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The study was published late last month in the journal Vaccine. With the help of the polling company YouGov, the authors conducted an online survey of over 2,000 dog-owning people, who were intended to be a nationally representative sample of Americans.
The participants were asked how they felt about canine vaccines, including the one for rabies. About 53% of respondents expressed some vaccine hesitancy in one of several ways, the researchers found. Specifically, 37% felt these vaccines were unsafe, 30% felt they were unnecessary, and 22% felt they were ineffective. Those who expressed these attitudes were also more likely to report not vaccinating their dogs for rabies, despite it being a requirement for ownership in many states.
While there are many diseases that can be prevented or made less dangerous through vaccination, few are as scary as rabies. The rabies virus can affect a wide variety of mammals, usually leading to a devastating brain infection. This infection eventually causes frightening neurological symptoms like confusion and aggression, the loss of bodily functions, and a pathological fear of water. It can take weeks for these symptoms to appear in dogs and humans, but once they do, the disease is essentially 100% fatal. The illness can be prevented through post-exposure treatment before these symptoms emerge, which also relies on the rabies vaccine.
Rabies continues to circulate widely in wildlife, but the routine vaccination of livestock and pets has helped significantly drive down human and canine cases in many countries. In 2021, for instance, there were only five human rabies deaths reported in the U.S., which was the highest annual tally seen in about a decade.
The disease remains a real public health problem in countries with poorer vaccination rates. And while rabies isn’t threatening to make a huge comeback in the U.S., the findings do seem to reflect the ongoing and perhaps growing mistrust that some people have about vaccines in general—a mistrust fueled by anti-vaccination advocates who commonly spread misinformation and outright lies about vaccines.
“The vaccine spillover effects that we document in our research underscore the importance of restoring trust in human vaccine safety and efficacy,” said study author Matt Motta, an assistant professor of health law, policy, and management at Boston University, in a statement released by the university.
While the anti-vaccine movement has been galvanized by the covid-19 pandemic, doggie antivaxxers are sadly not a new phenomenon. In 2018, the British Veterinary Association felt it necessary to explain that vaccines don’t cause autism in dogs, following reports that pet owners in U.S. were starting to decline vaccination for that reason. Interestingly enough, the current study also found that 37% of owners believe that canine vaccination could cause autism in their dogs.