VACCINES: WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW
By Nancy Marano
Disney viewing the world from his perch.
All responsible animal owners are told that vaccinations are essential to their animal's health. Normally this is true. Your cat or dog needs to be protected from some very real threats to its health and well-being especially if it goes outside or is part of a multi-animal household. Many states and municipalities, including New Mexico, have laws requiring that animal owners have their dogs and cats vaccinated for rabies both for the animal's protection and for that of the humans with whom he lives. The only difference in these laws is how often the vaccine needs to be given.
But what happens when you try to do the best for your cat and something terrible goes wrong. The very vaccine that was meant to keep your cat healthy turns out to be the cause of its death. While not frequent, the best estimates are that this affects from 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 cats. When it happens to your cat, though, it is 100% fatal.
Disney was a healthy, loving 13-year-old cat who lived with Amrit Khalsa and her family. A handsome 14 pound, black and white cat, Disney easily could have been mistaken for an elegant Tuxedo cat with black fur, white paws and white chest, except for the white half-moustache that gave him a whimsical air.
"I chose not to give my three cats rabies vaccinations after the initial series of shots when they were young. They were indoor cats, I didn't board them, and they had no exposure to other cats. However, my holistic veterinarian in Massachusetts convinced me to have them re-vaccinated because we'd had bats in the house," Khalsa said.
Two of the cats were fine. However, in October 2000, Khalsa discovered a lump about the size of a pea between Disney's shoulder blades. She immediately took him to the veterinarian to have it checked. Disney was diagnosed with vaccine-related fibrosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that started at the site of his rabies injection.
"I spoke with four veterinarians before going any further with treatment. We chose not to biopsy the tumor because I was told it was such an aggressive cancer that a biopsy could make it spread faster. They also said the success rate for stopping this cancer was less than 10%, and that this type of tumor was local and didn't metastasize. I was given the choice of trying surgery, although that was no guarantee of curing the cancer, or leaving it alone and treating Disney with diet and homeopathy."
Khalsa chose not to have the surgery but to treat Disney with diet and homeopathy. She felt it was the right decision for him. She wanted Disney to have the best quality of life for however long he lived after the diagnosis was made.
"It was an amazing year for all of us," Khalsa said. "The tumor had a life of its own. It didn't affect Disney's activities for almost a year. However, within 6 months the tumor was the size of a golf ball. Then the growth stopped. Some of the tissue began to decay, and we needed to clean it daily. In September 2001 the tumor began to grow again. When it reached the size of a tennis ball, it started to impede his activities. It also metastasized to his lung, which is not the normal progression for this cancer. Shortly after that, in December 2001, Disney died."
Although her family still grieves for Disney, Khalsa has the knowledge that they did everything for him they could. She worked with several traditional veterinarians as well as homoeopathic veterinarian, Dr. Don Hamilton, D.V.M., of Ocate, New Mexico. All were amazed at how long Disney lived.
Vaccines are made up of tiny amounts of disease causing material. The amount used is not enough to cause the disease, but it stimulates the animal's own immune system. In this way if the animal encounters the virus it has been vaccinated for, its immune system mounts a defense against the actual disease.
There are "live" and "killed" vaccines. Most vaccines are "live" vaccines where the virus is modified or weakened to the point of stimulating the immune system to form antibodies but not strong enough to actually cause the disease. "Killed" vaccines are those vaccines that are too dangerous to use in their live state because they cannot be weakened sufficiently. This is the case with rabies and feline leukemia (FeLV) vaccines. In "killed" vaccines an adjuvant, such as aluminum, is added to stimulate the animal's immune system and help ensure the vaccine's long term effectiveness. The adjuvant makes the vaccine potent enough for the cat to form antibodies against the virus. It may cause inflammation or irritation at the injection site and veterinarians believe this adjuvant may create the conditions, in particular cats, for cancer cells to form and develop into a fibrosarcoma.
About 10 years ago the veterinary community became aware of an increase in the number of cats that developed a sarcoma at the injection site of either the rabies or feline leukemia vaccination. But, the problem wasn't limited to the vaccines of any one manufacturer. Due to this increase in cases, the Vaccine Associated Feline Sarcoma Task Force was created in November 1996 by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Academy of Feline Medicine to study the problem, offer recommendations to veterinarians and the public for the best protocols to use in vaccinations, and to encourage further research into the problem.
The Task Force was made up of representatives from the American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association, Veterinary Cancer Society, American Association of Feline Practitioners, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Health Institute and the Cornell Feline Health Center.
TASK FORCE RESULTS
One of the main results of the Task Force's investigation was the idea that one protocol doesn't fit all cats. The vaccination needs of each cat should be evaluated based on the cat's age, health, living conditions, and risk factors for a particular disease. This puts responsibility on the cat's guardian and the veterinarian to come up with the best course of action for each cat.
The Task Force made recommendations for which vaccinations should be given and those that depend on the circumstances.
Kittens are at high risk for disease and need to have the combination vaccine known as FVRCP, or the core vaccines, with a booster shot in one year. The core vaccines protect against feline panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline rhinotracheitis, and feline calcivirus.
Rabies vaccination is highly recommended. Often the frequency and type of rabies vaccination is mandated by state or municipal law.
Feline leukemia vaccination would depend on the age and circumstances of the individual cat. The cat's risk of exposure to the virus needs to be evaluated with the veterinarian.
Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is not recommended because there is debate concerning the actual protection given by this vaccine.
Routine vaccinations are not recommended in the case of Chlamydiosis (upper respiratory disease), Dermatophytosis (ringworm), Bordatella bronchiseptica (respiratory disease), and Giardiasis (intestinal parasite). In each of these cases an evaluation should be made on the animal's risk of acquiring the disease before the vaccine is given.
The idea behind these recommendations is that veterinarians should avoid unnecessary vaccinations.
Other key Task Force recommendations are that vaccinations be given in standardized areas, and veterinarians should keep detailed records indicating vaccine lot number and type as well as the site of the vaccination.
The complete Task Force report is available online at www.avma.org/vastf. This site is updated regularly to include new research.
Some of these recommendations caused concern among veterinarians and vaccine manufacturers.
In addition to keeping the cat safe and healthy many veterinarians believe that having people bring their cats in for yearly vaccinations gives the veterinarian a chance to evaluate the cat for overall health. In this way a disease can be discovered while it can still be treated effectively. Many veterinarians are now stressing the importance of yearly wellness exams for every cat as preventive medicine. Now that cat guardians are being asked to take more responsibility for the health of their cat it is important that a true partnership be developed with the veterinarian to ensure the continued health of your cat. This may be a positive result of the new guidelines.
Vaccine manufacturers are doing new research on vaccines as a result of the Task Force recommendations. This may lead to new types of vaccines, such as nasal sprays and those made without adjuvants, which will decrease the sarcoma problem.
The major concern in the homeopathic community is that animals are being over-vaccinated. They feel this leads not only to sarcomas but to a long list of chronic diseases caused by adverse reactions of the immune system. These autoimmune diseases can range from immune suppression to seizures or arthritis. Some believe that continued use of vaccines can, over time, change an animal genetically. The change becomes part of the breed's genetic heritage in ways that often are detrimental for the breed.
Many of their concerns result from the fact that duration of immunity studies haven't been done for most vaccines. Since many vaccines give an animal long-lived immunity, repeating the vaccinations annually can cause problems in the immune system without boosting the animal's immunity. The initial immunity provided in early life can actually interfere with the efficacy of later immunizations. Some, such as Dr. Shawn Messonnier, D.V.M., suggest the use of vaccine titer tests as an alternative to routine vaccination. A titer test shows an animal's antibody status. This is an effort to determine whether the animal is currently protected against a specific infectious disease or whether the animal needs immunization. Using the titer information and a knowledge of the animal's lifestyle, the veterinarian is better able to recommend a course of action.
As Dr. Don Hamilton, D.V.M. says in his book, Homeopathic Care for Cats and Dogs, "Rather than vaccination, however, promotion of health is the best choice for long-term well being. This involves primarily nutrition and lifestyle choices."
The debate over vaccines and over-immunization is likely to continue. A positive result of this debate is that animal guardians and veterinarians must work more closely with each other to determine the best course of action for each animal. Another positive result is that vaccine manufacturers are rethinking the vaccines they produce and are working to make them safer.
Holistic veterinarians are providing options for animal guardians to consider when making their choices. In a time when humans are striving for wellness based on a healthy lifestyle it is only natural that this thinking would be applied to animals as well. As for required rabies vaccinations it is up to individuals and the homeopathic community to work actively to change state and city laws that stipulate vaccination frequency.
While these developments are too late to help Disney, they may make life healthier and happier for many other cats.
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