Green Living Pet Care: A Holistic Look at Vaccinations

December 8, 2008 by  
Filed under Blog, Front Page, Holistic Veterinary Care, Vaccinations

In recent years, a growing number of parents have expressed concern about the immunizations they’re being told to give their children. Their fears include side effects from the sheer number of vaccinations and from the vaccines themselves. By challenging the status quo, these parents have caused some in the scientific community to re-examine accepted practices and initiate further research in the quest for a safe immunization protocol for all children. But who is advocating for pets?

Your pets count on you for safe care. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Your pets count on you for safe care. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

If your veterinarian follows drug company recommendations, you probably have your pets vaccinated every year to prevent disease. But, in my opinion, that’s not beneficial to the health of most companion animals. For most pets, the greater danger lies in over vaccination.

Drug companies — the funders of drug efficacy studies — have only been required by the government to prove that the duration of immunity they claim is true. In other words, if they say a vaccination is good for one year, they must prove that animals are protected from that illness for one year.

But they’re not required to determine the potential time a vaccination could actually protect an animal from disease. So they arbitrarily pick a time frame, study whether the vaccine is effective for that time, then make their claim.

Is it in their interest to study whether a vaccine can protect a pet for a longer term? Let’s put it this way, if they were to tell pet owners that a vaccine is good for two years instead of one, that would cut their profits in half. And claiming longer efficacy would slash their sales even more.

In veterinary school, we learned that vaccinations were good for companion animals. We never dreamed they could cause harm. Yet, in the past ten years or so, vets have been reporting an alarming number of tumors forming at the vaccination site in cats.

When we started realizing that the tumors were associated with vaccinations, suddenly people wanted to reevaluate how often they should vaccinate. Immunologists chose three years as the arbitrary period of effectiveness, with recommendations to do titers to test whether a vaccine is still able to protect the pet after that. As long as the pet is protected, it doesn’t require a booster.

Unfortunately, few veterinarians are testing animals for immunity; they’re simply following the drug companies’ recommendations. But the holistic veterinary world is challenging the old beliefs.

It’s widely known in veterinary medicine that rabies and distemper vaccines create tumors in many dogs and cats. In Oregon, where I practice, these vaccines are required only every three years in an adult dog, and not required at all for cats. This may not be the case in other states, and each pet owner should follow the law in their own state, territory, or country.


Indoor cats are not likely to be at risk for rabies. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Indoor cats are not likely to be at risk for rabies. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can cross from other animals to humans. If not treated early, rabies is fatal in humans and always fatal in cats and dogs. In my area of the U.S., rabies is very low risk. If a cat stays indoors at all times, there is virtually no way for it to contract the disease. In Oregon, a cat would have to catch a rabid bat and be bitten by it before catching rabies. Most cats don’t fight with rabid skunks, so the risk of rabies is low.

From a Health Department perspective, however, the concern is that cats can easily transfer rabies into the home. If rabies is prevalent in your area, then rabies is a vaccine you’d choose for your cat. You and your vet should talk about it.

The distemper vaccine covers four viruses, including those that attack the upper respiratory system, as well as distemper. In cats, distemper is a lifestyle disease. In cats, distemper is a relatively rare disease. Unless you live in an area where distemper is present, I don’t recommend giving a vaccine not likely to be needed — especially when three additional, optional vaccines are included. I call these “optional,” because the upper respiratory viruses are not considered fatal.

Indoor cats that live in homes are generally safe from catching distemper if they live where no other animal has had the disease in the past year. The exception is cats living with people who work in animal shelters, kennels, or catteries, because people can carry the disease on their hands. Another way to catch distemper is through fleas and other insects, so be sure to vaccinate a cat if insects are a problem.

It’s a good idea, on the other hand, to vaccinate an outdoor cat or one that is likely to be exposed to other animals.

Outdoor cats are at greater risk for disease. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Outdoor cats are at greater risk for disease. Photo: Julia Wasson

Feline leukemia is similar to the human AIDS virus and is transmitted through bodily fluids. It causes immune suppression, resulting in cats easily acquiring other diseases. Feline leukemia is especially common in wild cats and cats that are sexually active. The disease is transmitted sexually, through mother’s milk, and through wounds sustained when fighting with an infected cat. The decision to vaccinate should be based on an evaluation of your cat’s lifestyle and if it is in the high-risk category.

At our clinic, we test kittens to see if they have acquired leukemia from their mothers. If they are outdoor cats that might fight with strays, then a leukemia vaccine is a good idea. For indoor cats, the vaccine is unlikely to be necessary. Similar to a healthy human living with someone infected with HIV, a healthy cat often can live with a leukemia-positive cat without contracting the disease.


Puppies definitely need to be vaccinated. Most veterinarians give a 5-in-1 vaccine called a DHLPP (distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parvovirus, and parainfluenza). But I don’t give the “H” (hepatitis) or the “L” (leptospirosis). This is controversial; your veterinarian may not agree with me.

Puppy shots are essential for good health. Photo: Julia Wasson

Puppy shots are essential for good health. Photo: Julia Wasson

Some dogs in Oregon get leptospirosis, but often they’ve already been vaccinated. In most cases, the “L” in the vaccine doesn’t give adequate protection, because the street virus is mutated from the strain in the vaccine. Also, part of the vaccine is left out because of side effects, so it does not provide complete protection for the animal. In my opinion, the limited protection provided is not worth the risk of giving the vaccine.

Viral hepatitis is very rare in my region. In fact I have not seen any cases of it in my years as a vet. Although many resources you might find on the Internet call canine hepatitis a “common” disease in dogs, Dr. Susan Wynn, a highly respected holistic practitioner, researcher, and author, says canine hepatitis “is rarely seen today….”

So, as with some other vaccines, I consider that the risk of giving the hepatitis vaccine to my canine patients outweighs the risk of contracting the disease. If it’s a common problem where you live, however, you should discuss this vaccination with your veterinarian.

Parvovirus (parvo) is a big risk for puppies. It’s a very hearty virus that causes vomiting and diarrhea and is usually fatal without intensive treatment. The virus can live in the ground for a year. If you happen to walk where a dog with parvo vomited — even months before — you might bring the virus home to your dog on your shoe. Parvo is highly contagious, and not worth the risk of leaving your puppy unprotected by vaccination.

My recommendation is to give puppy shots, then to carefully select which boosters to give beyond that. Parvo is very rare in an adult dog — even one that hasn’t been vaccinated. In my 20 years as a vet, I’ve seen only one case in an adult dog.

Healthy animals make good companions. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Healthy animals make good companions. Photo: Doreen Hock, DVM

Many vets recommend giving shots of the 5-in-1 (DHLPP) vaccine at 8, 12, 16, and 20 weeks. I only give the parvo and distemper vaccines, and I only give them twice, but I use a specific brand of vaccine in order to be able to give just two puppy shots. It would be a mistake not to give those vaccines.

If you live in an area where veterinarians insist on the four-shot series, and that’s your only option, then do it for your puppy, because parvo protection is so important. Then, shop around for a vet who will give only the vaccines your dog really needs.

I only give the parainfluenza vaccine with Bordetella as a kennel cough vaccine when required by a kennel for boarding. Kennel cough is not a fatal disease and, therefore, I don’t feel its risk outweighs the risk of vaccination.


In my view, a mistake most people make is to allow vets to give their dogs yearly boosters of all five vaccines in the 5-in-1 shot. That’s a lot of vaccine. The adverse effect is that we over-stimulate the dog’s immune system. If the immune system is revved up all year, that leads to allergic reactions and possibly increases their risk of cancer. I see animals with allergic reactions all the time. Remember, unless an immunization is mandated by law, you do not have to agree to it.

I give puppies vaccinations for parvo, distemper, and rabies. Every three years after that, I give a rabies booster, as mandated by law in Oregon. At seven years, I give boosters for parvo and distemper. This is a lot less than what most vets give, but it’s a regimen I trust for most dogs in my practice. If you feel like you need more surety in your pet’s protection from contagions, a simple blood test can check the levels of immunity still present after vaccination. This test is called a titer, and many veterinarians are now offering it for people who request it.

Older Dogs

Studies in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine describe an increased correlation with serious life-threatening diseases in the two weeks following vaccinations in older dogs. Most vets vaccinate older dogs just like younger dogs. I will not vaccinate dogs over seven years (except against rabies). This is very controversial, but it’s not my opinion alone.

Protect your pets with only the vaccines necessary to assure robust health. Photo: Doreen Hock

Protect your pets by giving them only the vaccines they need for robust good health. Photo: Doreen Hock

Veterinary doctor Ronald D. Schultz, professor and chair of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Veterinary Medicine, has independently studied the efficacy of canine vaccinations. I say “independently,” because his funding did not come from the pharmaceutical industry. His findings, which were published in 2003 in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association and revised in 2006, have been the cornerstone of new recommendations that significantly reduce the frequency of dog vaccinations.

I’m confident that veterinarians who recommend yearly boosters honestly believe that what they’re doing is the safest course of action for pets. Most vets want to do the right thing by their patients and their patients’ owners. Yet, holistic vets like myself disagree that a yearly booster shot is a wise choice for the pets that you love.

We’re not likely to have a definitive answer very soon, as there is little funding to research this question. Schultz’s work stands nearly alone. It’s difficult to find funding for such a study when nobody will make money from not doing vaccinations.

Until we have that answer, titers are an important screening method to verify whether your pet needs specific shots. According to Dr. Wynn, “Antibody titers are not going to save you any money, and they should still be done every 1–3 years, until we know how long these antibodies actually last in the blood. These annual tests will give us peace of mind, while at the same time helping to establish just how long vaccinations actually protect the average dog or cat. Knowledge of how to more safely and judiciously vaccinate our pets will save many thousands of pets unnecessary illnesses caused by our well-intentioned vaccine programs.”

In human medicine, you and I don’t get booster shots every year. We don’t get a tetanus shot more often than about 10 years, and tetanus isn’t even an effective vaccine. So when it’s time to take your cat or dog for a checkup, have a conversation to find out what your vet really thinks about yearly shots.

If your vet insists on yearly boosters for your healthy pet without testing to see if they’re needed, recommend Dr. Schultz’s work. If your vet still won’t listen, find someone who will. Your pet is counting on you.

Doreen Hock, DVM, Pacifica Veterinary Services

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)


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  4. Julia Wasson on January 12th, 2009 12:54 pm

    Thanks for your comment. Dr. Hock was in no way promoting the idea of zero vaccinations. As you’ll see, if you re-read the article, she supports getting pets the vaccinations they need to be safe and healthy. Because of the dangers of over-vaccinating, she advocates limiting pet vaccinations only to those that are essential for your pets’ health.

  5. Doreen Hock, DVM, Contributing Writer : Blue Planet Green Living on December 1st, 2009 3:25 pm

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