Oh God, People Really Are Anti-Vaxxing Their Pets

Bad human!
Photo: Getty Images

A new report from the UK seems to confirm vets’ worst fears, suggesting that pet vaccination rates in the country have dropped off substantially in recent years.

Veterinarians have been desperately reminding everyone that vaccines are safe and won’t give pets autism (seriously). But it wasn’t entirely clear if pet owners really were shying away from vaccines. The new report comes courtesy of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals, which claims to be the UK’s leading veterinary charity. Since 2011, the PDSA has carried out an annual survey of pet owners in the country, dubbed the PDSA Animal Wellbeing, or PAW, report. This year’s report involved just over 5,000 pet owners. Most of these were cat and/or dog owners, but few owned rabbits as well.

In addition to questions about their pet’s overall health, like how often they walked their dog, the owners are asked about their pet’s vaccination history. In 2016, 84 percent said their pets had gotten their needed shots when they were young. But by 2018, that percentage had dropped down to 66 percent, continuing a trend seen the year previously.

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There’s no direct evidence in the survey that pet owners are buying into the propaganda spouted by the anti-vaccination movement—it doesn’t seem to have asked people whether they think pet vaccines can cause autism, for instance. The most commonly stated reasons for not vaccinating were that it was too expensive or that their pets never interacted with other animals (both 17 percent); 10 percent said they had simply never gotten around to it.

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But there’s definitely some reason to think vaccine hysteria might be playing a role. For one, people didn’t report going to the vet or using other pet health services any less often in 2018 than they did in previous years—it was just vaccines they were avoiding more. And some owners said they didn’t think the vaccines were necessary (16 percent).

The authors of the PDSA report explicitly say that myths and misinformation about human vaccines spread through social media could be affecting pet owners, too.

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“These negative messages about vaccines can be projected onto pets in surprising ways—for example, the false link between the [measles, mumps, and rubella] vaccines and autism has also been applied to pet vaccines by skeptics, despite any link being thoroughly debunked in people and autism not being documented in pets,” they wrote.

In the UK at least, lower levels of pet vaccination seem to track with reported decreases in rates of childhood vaccination in people. And this decline in vaccination is at least partly to blame for the country losing its measles-free status just last month.

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The U.S. unfortunately doesn’t seem to have any concrete data on how often owners are vaccinating their pets. But the country as a whole is teetering on the brink of losing its measles-free status as well, as outbreaks since last September have led to the highest toll in over 25 years.

Of course, our pets need vaccines every bit as much as we do. A dog isn’t smart enough to understand the value of preventative healthcare—but its owner really should be.

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About the author

Ed Cara

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere