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Vaccine hesitancy and rabies vaccination

I would like to comment on the recent JAVMA News story “Vaccine hesitancy.”1 In my own practice, I vaccinate judiciously on the basis of each individual pet's exposure risk, the most current information from vaccinologists, recommendations from professional organizations such as the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians,2 and, in the case of rabies, the laws of the state in which the owner resides. For rabies, dogs and cats not vaccinated in accordance with state law face extended quarantine or, potentially, euthanasia if they bite a person or are exposed to a wild animal that might have rabies.

In my experience, many dogs and cats are vaccinated more frequently than necessary, often for reasons having nothing to do with animal health. For instance, because rabies is such an important public health issue, rabies vaccination is mandated under state laws and regulations. However, those state laws and regulations can often be arbitrary or outdated. In Rhode Island, for example, dogs and cats that are one day overdue on a one-year rabies vaccination certificate or are six months overdue on a three-year certificate can only be issued a one-year certificate, regardless of whether they receive a one-year or three-year booster vaccine.3 As a result, several rescue organizations and spay-neuter clinics in Rhode Island ignore current recommendations and only administer one-year rabies vaccines to escape having to determine which pets can be issued a three-year certificate.

Similarly, during the 10 years I practiced at an animal shelter, I encountered on a nearly daily basis dogs and cats that almost certainly had been properly vaccinated against rabies but that had to be revaccinated because their rabies vaccination certificates and available medical records were unclear as to whether a one-year or three-year vaccine had been administered. On top of that, a clinic I know administers three-year vaccines but only issues one-year certificates, informing clients that “rabies is epidemic in our area,” and two of the largest corporate practices in the United States have been slow or refused to correct mistakes on rabies certificates or to reissue certificates to pets being rehomed by shelters (as if the vaccine had been administered to the previous owners and not the animals themselves), resulting in unnecessary revaccination.

Vaccine hesitancy arises, at least in part, from a lack of public appreciation of the benefits of vaccination, unawareness of the ramifications of not being legally vaccinated against rabies, and unwarranted fears of rare adverse vaccine reactions. But we only make the problem worse by forcing owners to vaccinate their pets more often than necessary through variations in state laws and regulations that do not match the most current recommendations, poor record keeping, refusing to correct or reissue vaccination certificates, or using vaccination to force owners to visit their veterinarian every year.

Patricia Burke, DVM

Providence, RI

  • 1. Mattson K. Vaccine hesitancy: veterinary professionals face challenges surrounding vaccinations. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2020;256:530535.

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  • 2. National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control Committee, Brown CM, Slavinski S, et al. Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control, 2016. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2016;248:505517.

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  • 3. The state of Rhode Island manual for rabies management and protocols. Available at: www.dem.ri.gov/programs/agriculture/documents/rabiesprot.pdf. Accessed Feb 27, 2020.

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