Ever since Edward Jenner’s development of the first vaccination for smallpox in the late 1700’s, vaccination has played a crucial role in preventative health care in both people and animals. Globally we have eradicated Smallpox with Polio and Measles both candidates for eradication in the near future. In the veterinary world we are fortunate to be able to vaccinate against a number of diseases that cause significant illness and death. Vaccination can however be a victim of its own success. As disease levels are reduced it is easy to forget just how serious the illness was and this can lead people to stop vaccinating. Once vaccination levels drop below the amount needed for “herd immunity”, we go from seeing the occasional case to major outbreaks as the disease readily spreads within the population. These diseases are definitely still present in our area with regular cat flu and canine cough patients as well as sporadic parvovirus. Feline panleukopaenia has also been diagnosed in a number of cats and kittens recently in geographically different Vetlife clinics, a disease that most of us had never seen previously.
From cats that have chronic breathing issues, snotty noses, runny eyes and mouth ulcers through to dogs who rapidly die after developing vomiting and bloody diarhoea, few of us who are regularly seeing these diseases can doubt the importance of vaccination. Apart from Canine (kennel) cough, Parvovirus is the most common vaccine preventable disease of dogs and can result in death within a few days. With very intensive treatment and nursing we can save some of these dogs however many will succumb to their illness despite our best efforts and costs for treatment can easily run in the thousands. Cat flu is our feline population’s most common infectious problem and while it can fatal, especially to young kittens, it is the long term health problems that occur after infection that cause a lot of issues for those cats affected. The reason for this is that the 2 main flu viruses stick around in the body, sometimes for the cat’s entire life, and cause signs of disease whenever there is another illness or stressor present.
Of course, while vaccination is very important, it is also just as important that we vaccinate only those animals at risk and we do not vaccinate more frequently than required. An example of this would be that parvovirus vaccination has gone from needing an annual booster to a 3 yearly booster after a dog reaches 1 year of age. Weighing up risk of disease is also important in this, for example a cat that is kept inside will not need FIV vaccination and a dog who never comes into contact with others has no need for the canine cough vaccination.
One final thought on vaccination is the importance of the annual check-up, even if no vaccination is due. In otherwise “healthy” animals, this annual health check is the only time in the year they will be examined and very often it reveals a condition in need of treatment that would otherwise be missed. From obesity to bad teeth, arthritis to heart failure, kidney disease to cancer, we will often diagnose diseases in animals considered to be doing OK. Such early diagnosis can make a real difference and allow your pet to live a longer, healthier, more comfortable life, as well as being free from the risk of vaccine-preventable disease.