BANGOR, Maine — Pet vaccines are as important as those for humans when it comes to eradicating illnesses that cause vast fatalities in the animal world, but veterinarians say far too few Mainers keep their pets up to date.
There are scant data when it comes to determining how many pets receive the vaccines they need, said State Veterinarian Don Hoenig. The most accurate estimates are derived from dog licensing records. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 285,000 dogs in Maine, about 160,000 of which are licensed. Since licensing a dog requires that the animal be current on the rabies vaccine and cats are not required to be licensed, Hoenig estimates that around 50 percent of dogs and cats receive the rabies vaccine — and a much lower percentage get the other vaccines they need.
“We’d like to see that a lot higher,” said Hoenig, who is retiring from his position later this summer. “We’d like to see it in the 75 to 80 percent range, at least. Getting pets vaccinated against some of the core diseases is just imperative. If you do it you’ve essentially eliminated a lot of risks for your pet.”
Doug Hutchins, who owns Southern Maine Veterinary Care in Lyman and is president of the Maine Veterinary Medical Association, said his years in the field — and his personal experience doctoring pets on a day-to-day basis — tells him that other than rabies, vaccination rates in dogs and cats is dismally low, probably around 30 percent.
He said cost and worries about side effects of the vaccines may be factors, but the core reason for the low vaccination rate is that too many people just don’t understand how crucial they are. In addition to stopping the spread of disease, vaccinations and routine checkups are important because animals, dogs in particular, suffer the effects of many illnesses much quicker than humans do.
“A month to a dog can be like a year to you and I,” he said. “It goes the other way, too. I had a puppy come in recently with a broken leg and it was put in a splint. It was amazing in two weeks how much that animal healed. That’s why dogs should have a good physical exam probably every six months.”
In addition to rabies, there are several vaccines recommended for dogs.
• The parvovirus vaccine prevents a highly contagious virus from spreading. Parvo can cause severe vomiting, dysentery and even respiratory or cardiovascular failure, especially in puppies.
• The canine distemper vaccine protects dogs and cats from a wide range of ailments. Distemper virus attacks the animal through numerous ways — often resulting in severe respiratory problems, especially in puppies — and can be fatal.
• The bordetella (kennel cough) vaccine prevents inflammation of the upper respiratory system, which is a symptom that is often exacerbated by distemper. Symptoms can be mild to severe and recent studies indicate that bordetella can infect humans.
• The Lyme disease vaccine is becoming more and more prevalent for dogs, according to Hutchins. Lyme disease in dogs can cause lameness and severe pain in the joints.
• Some vets also advocate for other vaccines against ailments such as hepatitis, heartworm and influenza.
• There are some vaccines recommended primarily for cats, such as those that combat feline leukemia.
Much as is the case with humans, vaccinations of pets is somewhat controversial because of real or perceived side effects of the vaccines, including effects on the animal’s mood, and in cats, the growth of tumors.
But Hutchins said the arguments in favor of animal vaccines are similar to the arguments in favor of human vaccines: namely that the side effects are debatable and in virtually all cases, far less damaging than contracting the diseases would be.
He also said that some vaccines have been improved — most notably those for felines that at one time were responsible for causing tumors in some animals.
“The benefits of vaccinations far outweigh any of the side effects, without any question,” said Hutchins. “An animal that is well-vaccinated and has a good immune system is much better off than one that isn’t.”