Dog owners hesitant to get Rabies Vaccine

A brown and white dog sitting with a syringe close to its back

A new study from Boston University found that more than half of people who own dogs expressed some level of canine vaccine hesitancy

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. Now a new study led by a Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researcher suggests that this hesitancy towards COVID vaccines extends to pet vaccinations, as well — and at worrying levels.

A brown and white dog sitting with a syringe close to its back

Published in the journal Vaccine, the study analyzed a nationally representative sample of adults in the United States and found that more than half of people who own dogs expressed some level of canine vaccine hesitancy — i.e. skepticism about vaccinating their pets against rabies and other diseases.

An estimated 45 percent of US households own a dog; according to the survey results, nearly 40 percent of dog owners believe that canine vaccines are unsafe, more than 20 percent believe these vaccines are ineffective, and 30 percent consider them to be medically unnecessary.

About 37 percent of dog owners also believe that canine vaccination could cause their dogs to develop autism, even though there is no scientific data that validates this risk for animals or humans.

The Nina Ottosson by Outward Hound Interactive Puppy Hide N’ Slide puzzle

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, 2023 among 2,200 dog owners who answered questions through the research sampling firm YouGov.

Covid-19 and Vaccines

Notably, the findings show 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.

Thus, if fears towards 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,” says study lead and corresponding author Dr. Matt Motta, assistant professor of health law, policy & 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, vets, and even our friends and family risk coming into contact with vaccine-preventable diseases.”

The American Animal Hospital Association calls 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.

History of Rabies Vaccine

On July 6, 1885, Louis Pasteur and his colleagues injected the first of 14 daily doses of rabbit spinal cord suspensions containing progressively inactivated rabies virus into 9-year-old Joseph Meister, who had been severely bitten by a rabid dog 2 days before. This was the beginning of the modern era of immunization, which had been presaged by Edward Jenner nearly 100 years earlier.

Pasteur’s decision to treat the child followed 4 years of intensive research, culminating in the development of a vaccine capable of protecting experimentally challenged rabbits and dogs. His decision was difficult: “The child’s death appeared inevitable. I decided not without acute and harrowing anxiety, as may be imagined, to apply to Joseph Meister the method which I had found consistently successful with dogs” (1). The immunization was successful; and the Pasteur rabies immunization procedure was rapidly adopted throughout the world. By 1890, there were rabies treatment centers in Budapest, Madras, Algiers, Bandung, Florence, Sao Paulo, Warsaw, Shanghai, Tunis, Chicago, New York, and many other places throughout the world.

The basic “Pasteur Treatment,” based on brain tissue vaccine with the addition of formaldehyde, is still used in many countries of the world where rabies is prevalent. This treatment still involves immunizations given daily for 14-21 days, and it still carries the same risk of neurologic sequelae as in Pasteur’s day. In the United States and other developed countries, more potent, safer, but very expensive, cell culture-based rabies vaccines are combined with hyperimmune globulin for postexposure treatment. The efficacy of such regimens has been well proven.

Another era in vaccine development is now beginning–an era based on the practical application of recombinant-deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) technology and other novel genetic manipulations of rabies and other viruses and microorganisms. These new technologies promise even more potent and safer vaccines, as well as lower costs, improved stability, and easier delivery throughout the world to people at risk.


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