Every year, our cities and the local animal shelter sponsor vaccine clinics for their communities.  These are generally well attended, but I fear they may be doing more harm than good.

Typically, a veterinarian from outside our community has issued the vaccinations.  Because I have voiced concerns about the process, I have been invited to participate in these events.  Let me explain why I cannot in good conscience participate in our local city-sponsored clinics and why any caring pet owner should avoid them as well.

The concept of rabies clinics developed because of the serious threat of this zoonotic infection in some parts of the country during earlier decades. While rabies is still present in certain regions of our nation, it is generally well controlled because of regular vaccination programs. According to the Utah County Health Dept., Utah has never had a documented case of rabies exposure from dogs.  There have been the rare exposures from feral cats, and more commonly from bats.  

My own experience in participating at vaccine clinics has been that hundreds of people will line up with their dogs and children at the fairgrounds or public safety department. While most people and their pets are well mannered, there is often an unavoidable level of chaos and frenzy with people trying to control their pets and their children, dogs on high anxiety trying to hide, fight or play with others, and the attempt of the organizers to keep some semblance of order. I have seen waiting dogs vomiting. There have been dogs that hadn’t seen a veterinarian in years (if ever) with more serious health issues than getting a rabies tag. In these situations, I’m not even certain any protection was provided by the vaccine, and may have actually done more harm. I’ve even had clients come in later and tell me they got vaccines done at a local rabies clinic, when my records indicate that they didn’t even need their vaccines updated yet, because we had already used an extended duration vaccine. 

I recently met with the organizers for an upcoming vaccine clinic. We all agreed that all pets within our community should be vaccinated for contagious diseases. On the surface, we all agreed that clients should visit their veterinarian regularly.  However, it was apparent from our discussion that many pet owners do not appreciate the value of regular wellness examinations with a veterinarian.  This often comes down to not placing a very high value on the relationship with their pet.  Too often, pets are tolerated by busy adults only because their children value the pet.  However, the parents who make the financial and healthcare decisions do not always share that same bond.  Far too often I see families in tears during euthanasia procedures as their pet suffers with unnecessary illnesses, not because the illness wasn’t treatable, but because the financial commitment and emotional bond was lacking or because the family was not aware of options that could have prevented the progression of the condition when it was minor and manageable.  Often, even the adults are surprised to discover that they had more emotional attachment than they realized and regret not having addressed the issues before they became too severe and expensive to manage.  

Recently, a gentleman with no children brought in his 18 yr old companion cat that had stopped eating.  He confessed that he did not have the oral infections treated because he had heard from a breeder that this breed of cat would die from the anesthesia.  He had not had the cat vaccinated for rabies or anything else in several years because he had been told that rabies vaccines would kill this breed of cat.  He was extremely distraught over having to euthanize his cat and would have loved for me to tell him that it wasn’t necessary.  While one might celebrate the fact that this cat had lived to the age of 18 years, I was distraught on behalf of the cat as it had obviously suffered for several years with advanced, painful oral infections.  I wonder how much better those years would have been free of that pain.  It was sad that he had listened to other less-informed sources rather than to trust in a veterinarian’s education and wisdom.

Veterinarians across the country have witnessed the misperception that vaccination clinics are beneficial to the pets of a community.  In reality, vaccine clinics undermine efforts to raise awareness to the more urgent healthcare issues that pets face.  Once the legal rabies and licensing requirements are satisfied, many owners feel that their obligations have been fulfilled.  As a result, the opportunity is lost to discuss issues such as:

  • Nutrition: 80% of pets in the USA are obese or overweight because of improper nutrition.
  • Zoonotic parasite prevention: 3 – 5 million Americans (mostly children) contract pet-related parasites each year.
  • Periodontal disease: 75-80% of pets have at least one painful periodontal problem by 3 years of age.
  • Untold numbers of pets suffer in silence with undiagnosed, yet treatable illnesses such as arthritis, heart disease, cancer, kidney disease, allergies, diabetes and thyroid imbalance.

Many of these conditions are left untreated simply because the owners don’t know there is a problem or are unaware that there may be a solution.  Even clients of limited income often find that their veterinarian has options that fit their circumstances.

On one hand, I am flattered to be invited to participate in the Mapleton City vaccine clinic as a local veterinarian as opposed to inviting a doctor that has no commitment to the local community and has no intention of developing a relationship with our citizens.  However, I would be sacrificing my professional reputation and long-term goals for a shortsighted gain. The small income gained during a 3 hour clinic is traded for all the treatments that will never be performed because the real problems that were never identified.  As already mentioned, very few of these pets are likely to ever step inside a veterinary hospital as long as the minimum requirement can be satisfied in a parking lot each year.  

So, when I ask myself:

  • “Am I really doing either the pets or their owners a service by not giving them a proper examination in such a setting, and by thus allowing potentially debilitating conditions to go untreated?”  
  • “Is the return on the investment for 3 hours of work doing my staff, my family and my hospital financial justice for the years of education and financial commitment I have made to them?”
  • “What is the probability that my 90 seconds of contact will prompt someone to come visit me for a full exam and work-up?”

… the answer becomes pretty clear.  As long as there are veterinarians willing to compromise their standards, and as long as communities continue to offer short-term solutions by bypassing the veterinary-patient-client relationship, both the pets of the community, their owners and the local veterinarians and the staff they support will be underserved.