Study: Owners’ vaccine hesitancy can extend to pet dogs

Individuals who are skeptical of vaccines for themselves are also more likely to question the need or efficacy of getting shots for their four-legged companions, according to a recent study.

In the study, published in the medical journal Vaccine, researchers asked 2,200 Americans their thoughts on vaccines and whether they were dog owners. If they were, respondents were then asked whether they would vaccinate their dogs for rabies.

Approximately half of the pet owners surveyed expressed some degree of vaccine hesitancy — with 53% saying they believed vaccines administered to dogs were unsafe, ineffective or unnecessary, the study found.

That group was 6% more likely to have dogs that were not vaccinated for rabies, and 27% more likely to oppose rabies vaccine mandates when compared with survey respondents who did not express vaccine hesitancy, according to predicted probabilities outlined in the study.

Matt Motta, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and one of the study’s co-authors, said he was not surprised to see some respondents express reluctance regarding canine vaccines, but was intrigued by the raw data.

“I think we were pretty shocked at just how pervasive it is, and I think what I found even more shocking is how detrimental its health consequences might be,” Motta said.

Rabies, though relatively rare, is almost always fatal in animals and humans alike, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, due to vaccines, it’s also highly preventable: Only a few human cases are recorded each year in the United States.

“The rabies shot is the most important canine vaccination for protecting human health, and yet growing numbers of pet owners are skeptical of it,” the authors of the study wrote for Harvard Public Health.

Most infections in humans are caused by domestic dog bites.

California law requires all dogs over 4 months old to be vaccinated for rabies, and similar rules exist throughout most of the U.S.

Dr. Jeanne Noble, an emergency medicine doctor and COVID-19 response director for UC San Francisco, attributed the recent uptick in vaccine hesitancy in part to the mandates imposed during the pandemic.

“When public health officials used mandates to increase uptake of COVID vaccines, rather than sticking to broad education campaigns highlighting the tremendous benefits of the vaccine, while also acknowledging the small but measurable risks, we lost the trust of vaccine hesitant communities,” she wrote in an email. “These are folks that previously were cautiously abiding by vaccination recommendations for their children, and their pets, but are now opting out.”

To build back that trust, Noble suggested meeting people where they are and having honest and complete discussions — answering their questions and concerns without minimizing their fears.

The authors of the canine vaccine hesitancy study agree, and recommended paying special attention to pet owners.

“Public health campaigns tackling vaccine hesitancy would do well to consider dog owners in their messaging, and consider drops in pet vaccination, especially for rabies, an important bellwether for gauging public trust in vaccines,” they wrote in their Harvard Public Health post.

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