Many years ago, I had a client with several cats. He would bring each one in and proclaim what a great pet owner he was, because he vaccinated EVERY pet EVERY year. He would end every exam by saying “I keep MY cats healthy!”
I applaud his enthusiasm, and his love for his cats. But he was missing the mark – big time. The first problem is, these were cats who were exclusively indoor and never set foot outside. Yet he insisted on giving a leukemia vaccine every year “to keep her healthy.” (The feline leukemia vaccine is only recommended for cats who spend a significant amount of time outside.) He also insisted on vaccinating for Rabies and distemper (FVRCP) every year, while the current standard of care is to vaccinate every 3 years. So these were some seriously over-vaccinated cats. Still he wanted “all their shots to keep them healthy.” He had no interest in any other aspects of medicine.
Vaccines keep pets healthy…right? If you don’t vaccinate for everything, all the time, you are a failure for a pet owner, right?
Not so fast.
Let me be clear – vaccines, when used appropriately, are important. They protect your pet from infectious diseases, many of which are fatal, so that’s a good thing. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to staying healthy than preventing a handful of diseases. And if your cat never goes outside, and you are not bringing new cats in, the chance of your cat being exposed to a contagious disease is darn close to zero.
I wanted to talk to this client about what we can do to actually keep his cats healthy, and how it has nothing to do with the shots! Those cats had immunity sufficient for a decade – I had bigger concerns. But nope, vaccines were all he would allow, and after every appointment he’d victoriously carry his freshly vaccinated cat out the door.
Want to keep your dog or cat healthy? Maintaining immunity from potentially fatal diseases (through vaccination) is only one tiny aspect. Let’s talk about your pet’s weight, and how fat he is. Yep, I just said it. Obesity is the most common disease affecting pets in this country, and instead of having a helpful conversation about it, we stick these fat dogs and cats with shots and send them out the door.
Let’s talk about your pet’s teeth, and how bad the breath is. Your indoor cat isn’t going to get leukemia, but he is going to suffer from that rotten tooth that needs to be pulled. A shot doesn’t fix that, and with teeth rotting in his mouth, I’d have a hard time calling him “healthy.”
How about heartworm? Vaccines don’t prevent that! Are you giving your dog heartworm preventative every month? That’s a disease that is guaranteed fatal if not treated, yet because it’s something we can’t see, and it kills slowly, we tend to blow it off. A dog with heartworms is certainly not “healthy.”
Is your older dog slowing down on walks? Is he losing muscle in his rear legs? Chances are he has some arthritis and is in a fair amount of pain. Instead of focusing on redundant shots, let’s treat his pain and make him feel better every day!
I could go on, but you get my point. Keeping a pet healthy requires a more holistic approach, where you look at the entire pet, not just the immune system (cough cough, vaccines). This is why the physical exam your veterinarian gives your pet is far more important than the shots she sticks into him. Want to keep your pet healthy? Get a thorough exam by a competent veterinarian, have a conversation, and act on what they find. Vaccines? Sure, after a discussion of your pet’s WHOLE health, lifestyle and risk!