Opinion

How Many Rabies Vaccinations Are Enough?

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As I write this, I am wrestling with living in a municipality where an annual rabies vaccination is required for all cats registered in the area. My question is, why is this the law when we know that an initial rabies vaccination followed by a booster when the cat is just a kitten will pretty much insure lifelong immunity? Even if it doesn’t, an antibody test or titer every few years will certainly show that a re-vaccination may be needed.

I briefly answered a question on this subject here, but wanted to take a moment to dig deeper and present the case that many of the laws governing vaccination requirements for pets need to be changed. Let me start by stating unequivocally that I believe that all cats need to be vaccinated. I am not some silly anti-vaxxer who thinks that vaccines are evil. Quite the contrary, I know that vaccines are an important component of the general well-being of our pets. Without rabies vaccines, the disease would be much a more prevalent problem than it actually is in most parts of the world.

Unfortunately, all the lawmakers really know about it is that the vaccine works under current laws. But when we take a look at the science behind the rabies vaccine, we see some good news and some bad news.

The good news is, as stated above, the vaccines work. We do not have major outbreaks of rabid pets in urban areas across the country. In fact, we have very few reported incidents of rabies at all among domesticated animals.

Wildlife has accounted for > 90% of all rabid animals reported in the United States since the 1980s.
— Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association

You can read the full report, which focuses on the 2017 calendar year, HERE. It states that in 2017, “Of the 4,454 cases of animal rabies, 4,055 (91.0%) involved wildlife species.” Of the 399 cases of domesticated animals reported with rabies, 276 were cats and 62 were dogs. With >99% of human deaths from rabies worldwide coming from human contact with rabid dogs, it’s safe to say that we’re well protected from the disease in the US. The major cause of concern here is the transfer of the disease from wildlife to our pets, but that clearly isn’t happening frequently. I would hypothesize that most of the cats and dogs who contracted the disease did so because they were not vaccinated at all.

The bad news is that the success we’ve had in minimizing the impact of rabies has come largely from a policy of over-vaccination of pets in a large hammer approach. While this has truly been effective, we’ve seen some negative consequences among the cat population. Potential side effects include injection site tumors (sarcomas), persistent vomiting, diarrhea, hives, swelling, breathing difficulty, and collapse.

Cats are especially susceptible to injection site sarcomas. These are cancerous tumors that develop at the location of the injection (usually between the shoulder blades) and which can develop weeks, months, or even years after the injection (ref. AVMA). Cat-friendly veterinarians can choose to use vaccines such as Purevax without an adjuvant to help minimize this problem. They may also keep track of injection locations and rotate locations frequently, keeping to the extremities in case a tumor were to develop.

The problem is that current rabies vaccination laws were mostly written during the 1970s. When the laws were written, they were VERY effective at curbing a problem that presented great risk to an exploding population of pets and their caregivers. At that point, most municipalities closed the book on this particular set of laws and have not addressed them since, taking a “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” attitude. Well, many veterinarians and researchers like Dr. Ronald Schultz, disagree and recommend change.

Dr. Schultz is the head of the pathobiological sciences department at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine. His specialty is veterinary immunology, and he states that the core vaccines needed by cats are feline panleukopenia, feline calicivirus, feline herpes virus, and rabies” (ref. YouTube interview). He states that every cat should receive these as a kitten. The remaining vaccines are considered non-core or optional.

We do a lot of vaccinating and sometimes don’t do very much immunizing.”
— Dr. Ronald Schultz

Dr. Schultz recommends that a kitten receive core vaccinations at 8, 12, and 16 weeks. Then, two or more weeks later, the kitten should be tested with an antibody titer to make sure that the vaccinations have induced an immune response to panleukopenia in particular. This can weed out non-responders and establish protective immunity. Those pets are now protected for life. There is no reason to continue boosting vaccines because it doesn’t improve the immune response. He only recommends re-vaccinating every three years if a titer isn’t performed.

“If you don’t do that antibody titer two or more weeks after the last…shot, then we’re recommending that you re-vaccinate in a year…and then after that, what we recommend is three years or longer, which means not more often than three years. Now, that’s a very conservative number in that most of those animals will be protected for life, so giving the vaccine every three years may not be necessary…Some clients…will go with titers to actually determine whether or not they need a so-called booster.” He goes on to explain that there are various methods of titering and that the numerical results given “don’t mean anything as long as they’re positive.”

In regards to the rabies vaccine, Dr. Schultz says that in the 1980s, it was suggested that the modified live rabies vaccines used back then be administered annually because no one really knew how long the immunity lasted. When some kittens contracted rabies from the modified live vaccine, there was a shift to the non-infectious, inactivated rabies vaccines. He states, “We never did change the vaccination program. We changed the vaccine, but not the program.”

His department at the University of Wisconsin is currently conducting a study to extend the legal length of time between re-vaccination from a maximum of three years to a maximum of seven. The fact is that in most animals, immunity will last a lifetime, but the current need is for proof that our pets’ immunity lasts much longer than was previously believed. The difficulty with conducting these studies is that their duration has to be at least as long as the term being studied. They settled on a study length of seven years to reap the benefits sooner rather than later. If a study of feline immunity were to cover a cat’s lifetime, it could last 20 years or more and be of little benefit in changing the laws in the short term.

For this reason, it’s imperative that the laws get changed to require antibody testing instead of requiring vaccinations. Municipalities need to accept titer test results in lieu of re-vaccination. The Kansas State Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory has come up with a screening test to determine if patients need vaccine “boosters”. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association is supporting them in their effort, and we must as well.

The requirements that cats be registered and vaccinated according to current laws means that many cats will never receive their very necessary vaccines when they’re kittens. The law’s very existence even dissuades some people from visiting a veterinarian on a regular basis.

Dr. Schultz said, “The animal that’s not getting vaccinated, whether the requirement is annual or every three years, won’t get vaccinated. It’s just a penalty for the compliant…owner and they’re actually potentially causing harm to their pet because they’re willing to follow the law, whereas the rest of the people who are not vaccinating at all are creating the problem and they’re not going to follow the law whether it’s one year, two years, or three years.”

Please reach out to your lawmakers and let them know your concerns about the current laws governing local vaccination requirements for your pets. It’s important to approach them in a calm and businesslike manner and to address them properly in order to be more persuasive, but you should also be firm with a clear expression of what you’d like to see happen. I’ve prepared a sample letter here that you can download to copy and edit to your liking.

You can find the contact information for your local legislators at USA.gov. I recommend that you print and mail your letter the old fashioned way in order to get more attention. It’s just too easy for lawmakers to ignore emails or dismiss them. Paper letters are difficult to ignore, especially if they start stacking up.

The Rabies Challenge Fund is currently supporting Dr. Schultz and his ongoing immunity study. I encourage you to support them in their stated goal of determining the duration of immunity conveyed by rabies vaccines in order to influence future changes to animal vaccination laws.

-Tom

Just Say NO to Animal Psychics

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There are so many shysters out there trying to take your money with false promises. Recently, we've become aware of an uptick in new age "animal communicators". These are people who claim to have a special gift of understanding the thoughts and feelings of your precious pets. These people are the lowest of the low, preying on people's love for their pets with lies masquerading as pseudo-science. This should be illegal, but if you can get people to pay for something in this country, there's no stopping you.

Let's be clear - There is no such thing as mind-reading between humans or between humans and animals. These people are using the age old tricks of the palm reader to tell their customers what they want to hear. They're performing what's called a "cold reading" in the palmistry biz - a series of guesses based on the limited information presented. Vague statements that can then be narrowed down in a sort of warmer-colder word game.

If anyone offers to help you to understand your pet's behavior using anything other than their knowledge of the species and observational skills, run as far away as you can. YOU will always be the ultimate source of info on your pet, because only YOU have the opportunity to observe him or her daily. You'll never have a need for these fake "animal communicators" if you just pay attention.

Cat Rescues Vs. Breeders

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There are those who think that cat breed A, B or C is just the best because that’s the kind of cat they identify with. Maybe those Siamese cats in Lady & the Tramp just made a big impression or maybe or it’s how they’d like others to think of them. Well, I’m here to tell you that they’d be better off adopting. Breeders are the bane of rescue groups everywhere.

The biggest issue is simply that the world has enough cats without breeders making more. Statistics from the ASPCA state that 1.4 million cats are euthanized in the US shelter system each and every year. Approximately 70% of the cats who enter shelters are euthanized. This number is changing with no-kill facilities, but it is still alarming.

For every cat purchased from a breeder, a perfectly suitable cat could have been adopted from a rescue or a shelter. And don’t tell me you couldn’t find a suitable cat! I’ve worked at one of the finest Humane Societies in the country and I can tell you we saw every size shape, color, and disposition you could ever imagine, including some cats who were very likely purebreds.

It’s important that we not support the work of breeders. Even though some are well-intentioned, they are still making their living off the exploitation of cats. It’s a business that the breeder relies upon for their income, and that income is much more important to them than the well being of the animals in their care. Many will claim to be in love with the breed that they sell, but their queens (the mothers they use like kitten factories) aren’t given the benefit of happy lives in loving homes.

In addition, animals who are bred for a particular appearance also become victim of a litany of maladies as they’re inbred again and again. Genetic defects are the rule, not the exception in purebred animals of any sort. It’s a fact that most mixed breeds live happier, healthier lives than their purebred cousins.

It’s also important to note that most breeders don’t require the kittens they sell to be spayed or neutered. Most rescues and shelters do require their cats to be “fixed” prior to adoption because their goal is to reduce the overall population of cats. In fact, most rescue and shelter workers would be quite happy to be out of a job tomorrow if that were possible.

Please don’t add to the cat overpopulation problem by buying a pet from a breeder. There are many wonderful rescues and shelters throughout the world who would be very happy to help you find your feline soulmate. In the end, you’ll have helped not only the cat you adopt but also the species as a whole.

-Tom

Cat Charity Recommendations

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'Tis the season of giving once again, and many of our favorite charitable organizations are finding themselves cash poor this year. We can all help if we even give a small amount out of our holiday budgets in place of one or two gifts that we all know no one wants or needs. In our household, we buy very few gifts and the bulk of our holiday budget goes to the charities listed below.

By no means is our list an exhaustive one. It's just a list of major cat and animal charities that we've vetted and have found to be conscientious in their use of donations. If you have a favorite charity that you don't see listed here, feel free to contact us through our Facebook page and tell us about it. We may include it when we revise the list.

You may also want to consult a web site like Charity Watch or Charity Navigator to draw your own conclusions. Just be aware that those sites don't always show the entire picture. 

Now, on to the list!


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Our favorite feral cat charity is Alley Cat Allies. They've proven themselves to be tireless defenders of feral cats and the community caregivers who help them to survive. They've been instrumental in helping to forge new laws that protect ferals from the inevitable hatred that is bred by misunderstandings of how community cats can be controlled, and they educate the public about the use of Trap Neuter Return instead of euthanization.


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Our favorite special needs cat charity is Blind Cat Rescue Sanctuary. Located in North Carolina, BCR doesn't put it's feline friends up for adoption, but instead houses them and cares for them as long as they live. Blind cats are quite capable, but caregivers often need special training in order to understand their unique needs. BCR helps cat lovers to understand these needs and also serves as a reference for blind cats that are available for adoption throughout the US.


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Our favorite nature charity is the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. While it isn't a cat charity, Sea Shepherd's work impacts us all--even cats. They police the world's oceans to stop illegal fishing, pollution, and other activities that endanger ocean ecosystems. As SSCS founder Paul Watson is fond of saying, "If the oceans die, we die." Ocean conservation is on the front line of ecological conservation for all animals.


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We feel very strongly that each of these charitable organizations is worthy of your donations, but we would be remiss if we didn't tell you to begin by looking for a small rescue in your own backyard to support. Local rescues like Tiny Kittens or Stray Cat Alliance often receive very little in the way of donations, so your money can have a greater impact. Over the holidays, watch for matching challenges that can even double your donation for these needy groups!

The Economics of Pet Products

I go to the local Petco store from time to time just to check out what's on the shelves. And do you know what I find on almost every aisle? Misdirection, misrepresentation, and sometimes outright deception. Most of the products in the cat care aisles are simply not appropriate for cats. When a well-intentioned person buys one of these products, they may be disappointed that their cat doesn't take to it at all. Or the product may help to create behavior issues that the cat will be blamed for.

Is this Petco's fault? No. Petco is a retailer. Their job is to stock the pet supplies that people want and to sell them in an attractive and convenient way. The marketing spin and poor product designs come from the companies who produce many of the products stocked there, and at Petsmart, Amazon, Chewy, Pet Food Direct, etc. The responsibility for what's stocked is ultimately in your hands and mine.

As I walk down the aisles of cat products I see many (MANY) products that simply are more appropriate for humans than they are for cats. For example, cats don't like hooded litter boxes but there are a dozen different versions of them here at Petco. Why? Because cats have no wallets. We've basically trained our pet supply vendors and retailers to appeal to us instead of to our cats and it's time we retrained them.

If you know anything about working with animals, even human animals, you know that it's much easier to train than to re-train, but that's exactly what we have to do. Every dollar we spend on pet supplies should be a conscious choice. Think, "Is this what my feline friend would choose?" or "Will this appeal to my cat's instincts?" instead of "Oooo, isn't that cute?" or "That package sure is pretty." Marketing experts have many people in the palm of their hands. We have to step back and think about our choices and how they'll affect the well-being of our cats. We need to see the products, not the packaging. Imagine them in our homes and imagine how our cats will truly respond.

Yes, that means retraining ourselves first and foremost to view pet supplies from the perspective of our furry friends. Then we need to convince other, less cat-savvy individuals to do the same. If we can do so, slowly, but surely, we'll see pet supply stores carry better and more species-appropriate products. Better for us and better for our cats. We just have to lead the way.

When Shouldn't You Adopt a Cat?

Sometimes a cat is better off not being adopted.  Does that sound crazy to you?  Well, consider this:  Most cats aren't given adequate veterinary care by their caregivers.  Cats under the age of 10 should visit the vet at least once a year for a checkup.  Cats over 10 should go every six months.  And yet, most cat caregivers let the health of their feline friends slide.

These are some of the most popular reasons given by well-intentioned people, and our usual responses:

  • My cat hates it.
    • We all need things that we don't like.  Even cats.  Your cat won't hate you afterwards, but she could live in pain or die without good medical treatment.
  • I can't afford it.
    • A cat can't pay the veterinarian by herself.  She needs your help.  If you don't have the resources to provide adequate care, you shouldn't adopt.
  • My cat seems okay.
    • Cats are excellent at hiding their pain.  It's a survival instinct.  No cat wants you to know that they're sick or injured.  You need regular veterinary visits to make sure they're okay.
  • My vet charges too much.
    • There are a large variety of veterinary practices out there.  Yes, some are very expensive, but many are reasonable.  We know a good vet in Los Angeles who only charges $35 for an office visit.  There are also mobile clinics in larger metro areas that charge even less.  Do your homework.  Observe your feline friend closely and make notes about any behavior changes before bringing your cat in to save time.
    • If you can't afford reasonable veterinary care for your cat, you shouldn't have adopted.  If you have to give him up to get him the care he needs, then do so.  It sounds harsh,. but your cat's life may hang in the balance.
  • My vet's not good with cats.
    • We hear this one from time to time and it's puzzling.  We shouldn't require that our veterinarians love our cats.  We can handle that part.  We need them to provide adequate diagnostic and medical care.  If they have a gruff demeanor after a day spent dealing with difficult pet "parents", cut them some slack.  A veterinary hospital isn't a kitty day spa.
    • If your vet is truly behind the times with diagnosing cat problems, you have two choices.  1. Find another vet.  2. Help them by doing your own research into issues.  This can be a mine field online, but books like Anitra Frazier's The Natural Cat can certainly be good resources.

These are excuses, not reasons.  If you agree to adopt a cat, you also agree to look out for that cat's well being.  That includes regular vet visits and necessary medical care should the need arise.  If you don't have the resources to cover the costs of these needs, you really should not adopt a cat.  Doing so would be selfish!

The Hazards of Being a TV Cat

There are lots of famous cats, from Morris to Grumpy Cat, and they all have one thing in common - they have no desire to be famous.  They're in the public eye because their human wants them to be famous or make money off them, or both.  This is wrong for a number of reasons, but the worst is that it compromises the well-being of the cat.

I live in Los Angeles, and I've worked on a large number of big budget film and television shoots.  Everything from Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean to Alias and My Wife & Kids.  What they all have in common is extremely high-pressure environments and a serious lack of time.  If you add an animal into the mix, your exacerbate those problems.  Now the animal is expected to perform on cue for grumpy, impatient people who just want to finish the day and go home.  This isn't a situation where an animal will be well-treated.  In fact, despite the claims of the American Humane Association, most animals on set are treated quite badly.  They're transported in cramped conditions, moved into spaces they don't know and can't understand, and then expected to perform on cue.

Cats are especially susceptible to becoming distressed in this sort of situation, unlike dogs who might even thrive there.  Cats are highly territorial.  When taken to an area that lacks familiarity and their scent markings, they can become agitated.  Just how agitated really depends on the individual cat.  Some cope with change better than others, such as Maine Coons, but almost all cats dislike new places the first time they're taken there.  Regardless of personality, their reactions are either to hide from the world or to explore an area that is extremely unsafe for animals.

By the way, "American Humane Association" (AHA) and "The Humane Society of the United States" (HSUS) are different organizations.  The AHA film & TV unit makes a significant amount of money from Hollywood productions that want to have their projects certified.  Despite the AHA film tagline, "No animal was harmed", it seems that a number of animals have been harmed under the AHA's watch.  In 2001, the Los Angeles Times ran an article on the AHA film & TV unit that stated, "the group has been slow to criticize cases of animal mistreatment, yet quick to defend the big-budget studios it is supposed to police."  The article also cites specific incidents where animals were injured or killed on set with no repercussions from the AHA.  (read the entire article here)  The most recent accusations revolve around animal deaths on the set of The Hobbit

Thankfully, CGI animals are becoming more prevalent in today's productions.  I applaud the use of CGI as long as the animals portrayed aren't harmed.  Sadly, dramatizing the violent death or mistreatment of a CGI animal can give some psychotic individuals the wrong idea.

You may be asking what you can do.  Well, the first thing is to stop supporting productions that use live animals in this way.  A film that uses cats is no different that a circus that uses elephants.  Just don't buy a ticket.  If you see an online video where a cat is frightened or tormented, note your disgust in the comments.  We have to make the general public aware that animals are sentient beings and that we won't tolerate their mistreatment for human profit or pleasure.