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Vaccine hesitancy affects dog-owners, too, with many questioning the rabies shot


Many people treat their pet dogs like family and raise them in accordance with their own values. A recent paper finds that human vaccine skepticism is making its way into the pet world. Here's NPR's Pien Huang.

PIEN HUANG, BYLINE: Cindy Marabito runs a pit bull rescue out of her home in Austin, Texas. Right now, she has nine dogs roaming her big backyard near the banks of the Colorado River. Her philosophy is to give low to no vaccines.

CINDY MARABITO: Why are we giving all these dogs, horses, kittens, cats excessive rabies shots?

HUANG: Health officials say those shots help keep a deadly disease away. In most states, dogs are required to get rabies shots every three years. But Marabito is one of many pet owners with canine vaccine hesitancy. According to a recent survey out of Boston University, 53% of U.S. dog owners question if the rabies vaccine is safe, if it works or if it's useful. Lori Teller is a veterinarian at Texas A&M and former head of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

LORI TELLER: I find it very disturbing. The rabies vaccine has been around for decades, and it is so incredibly safe, especially when you consider the risk of death.

HUANG: Teller says skepticism towards human vaccines has risen with the politics around COVID and the anti-vaccine movement against childhood shots.

TELLER: And I am extremely concerned that we're getting spillover into the veterinary space, particularly because a lot of these vaccines do prevent diseases that are potentially contagious to humans.

HUANG: The disease most worrying for human health is rabies. Ryan Wallace, head of the rabies team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explains the infection.

RYAN WALLACE: It's usually - almost always - transmitted from saliva of an infected animal.

HUANG: The virus gets into the body through a bite wound. It travels slowly up the nerves to the brain, and then it starts replicating rapidly. That's when an animal or a human start showing signs.

WALLACE: It's almost impossible to come back after that. The virus - its goal is to make you act abnormal so it can spread to the next animal.

HUANG: Wallace says 99.9% of humans and animals that get rabies to the brain will die. A hundred years ago, rabies was considered one of the most important public health problems in the U.S. Now it's largely under control.

WALLACE: We have shifted as a country from vaccinating dogs at a high rate to get rid of the virus to now vaccinating our pets at a high rate to keep the wildlife versions of this virus from getting into our pets and people.

HUANG: About 5,000 rabid animals get reported each year - mostly bats, raccoons, skunks and other wildlife. Cindy Marabito from the pit bull rescue says she's never seen a rabid animal.

MARABITO: You know, I'm not careless. But I also really don't overly concern myself with being fearful of things that rarely, rarely, rarely happen.

HUANG: But she says she has seen a dog act strangely after getting a rabies shot. Serious side effects from the rabies vaccine are very, very rare, but seeing that made her wary. Researchers say that while half of dog owners are skeptical of the rabies vaccine, most are still giving it to their pets. The vaccination rate is around 80%, about the same as it was 10 years ago. Still, health officials say the margin is slim. If that 80% rate drops to below 70%, pockets of the country could start seeing more deadly rabies in people and pets.

Pien Huang, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.

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