Dr. Fox: Overuse of vaccines may do more harm than good

Dear Dr. Fox: My wife and I have three dogs: two 7-year-old Shih Tzu sisters and a 10-year-old male Maltese. All are presently healthy, though the one Shih Tzu had a seizure episode about a year and a half back. After tests ruled out most everyth...

Dear Dr. Fox: My wife and I have three dogs: two 7-year-old Shih Tzu sisters and a 10-year-old male Maltese. All are presently healthy, though the one Shih Tzu had a seizure episode about a year and a half back. After tests ruled out most everything, the vet surmised it might be epilepsy. She's had no seizures since then, so I'm wondering if it was something that she ingested.
My question is about vaccinations. My vet wants our dogs to have every vaccine done every year. We're looking at giving them vaccines to prevent parvovirus, distemper, Lyme and two or three others.
While I know rabies is mandatory and absolutely needed, I have never quite understood why they would need the myriad other vaccines, especially as they get older and have already had them for years. Don't the animals build up immunity? I am concerned that it could trigger the seizures again in the one pup.
Don't get me wrong-I am not against vaccinating the animals. The cost is also not a concern, though it seems that the same vaccines get more expensive every year. What concerns me is that the dogs are going through needless shots that could ultimately have an adverse effect.-D.P., Chevy Chase, Md.

Dear D.P.: I have discussed this issue frequently over many years in my column. Some veterinarians, who contended that annual re-vaccinations for many different diseases were unquestionably necessary, castigated me for many years.

It has taken close to 30 years for the practice that I advocated-minimal vaccinations after the initial sets of puppy and young adult vaccinations had been given-to become the established protocol. This can be facilitated by blood titer testing to see if re-vaccination is called for, since not all dogs produce significant levels of protective antibodies after being vaccinated. But in addition, some dogs also have what is termed "somatic memory immunity," which can also protect them and which the blood titer test does not assess. Another part of the accepted protocol is to not vaccinate sick and nursing animals, to avoid giving several different kinds of vaccinations all at the same time, and to consider the effectiveness of some vaccines and the risk of exposure. Indoor dogs, for instance, have a low risk of exposure to leptospirosis (also known as field fever) in most regions.
As I discuss in my book "Healing Animals & the Vision of One Health," vaccinations play an important role in disease prevention, but their overuse and formulation can cause more harm than good. They should be used with extreme caution. Since one of your dogs may be epileptic, re-vaccination may be ill-advised.
Dear Dr. Fox: My 8-year-old daughter and I have been feeding and getting to know a feral alley cat who lives in our neighborhood. The cat has a hard life, and we estimate she is about 10 years old now. We are planning to move to a new home in a different neighborhood in the next year or two. We would like to adopt her and take her with us to our new home, as we are very fond of her and are concerned about her welfare when we leave. We read in your column that you and your wife have caught and rehabilitated two feral cats, and we would love all the advice you could give us. We are especially interested in how to establish a greater level of trust towards us-right now she lets my daughter pet her and brush her, but she is very skittish otherwise. My daughter has hopes that the cat will eventually become a cuddler and a lap-sitter as she feels more comfortable in our home. We are also concerned about how to teach her to use a litter box and about not scratching things. Your thoughts about how to ease the transition to being an indoor cat with good house manners are welcome. We plan to take her to the vet for a thorough checkup before she comes into the house. Thanks very much.-H.H.& K.H., Washington, D.C.
Dear H.H. & K.H.: I appreciate your concerns and connection with this poor cat-a good, if not entirely distress-free experience for your daughter.
The cat must be caught, ideally using a humane Havahart trap. Ask animal control or a local shelter or cat rescue network for help in getting the cat used to seeing the trap and eating close beside it. They can also show you how to eventually set the trap. Choose a day when you can take the cat directly to the vet's for a full wellness examination and anti-rabies vaccination. Defer other vaccinations because of risks to a stressed animal-ditto exploratory surgery to see if neutering is needed.
Set up one room where the cat can have a litter box, food, water and a box with towel to hide in. Letting the cat have the run of your home comes later. First the cat must be socialized and settled in a confined space, where she cannot run away and hide when she is afraid. A daily pinch of catnip and a pheromone dispenser in her room may help, as will regular grooming, interactive play (with a feather on a string) and just sitting quietly with her. My book "Supercat: How to Raise the Perfect Feline Companion" gives advice on environmental enrichment to help cats enjoy an indoors-only life.

Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Universal Uclick, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns. Visit Dr. Fox's website at

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