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Rethinking Standard Vaccines & Flea Topicals

Do you get those emails and post cards from your veterinarian reminding you that your cat’s vaccinations are “due” and that you should make an appointment ASAP? We like to think that we can completely trust our cat’s veterinarian to know what’s healthy and what’s harmful, but the truth may be somewhere in the middle. Vaccinating our companion animals and using flea topicals regularly is not a simple do it/ don’t do it argument. Today I saw a tragic reminder of the potential consequences that can arise, and even worse, the blasé attitude the kitty’s clinic took about his reactions that were down right negligent.

Sugar was a healthy cat in the prime of his life. At 10 years old, he enjoyed being a spoiled single kitty with supervised outdoor time in the back yard. His guardians took him in for a rabies vaccine because it was required by the veterinarian to board him there during a trip they had planned. At the time he was vaccinated, it was found that he had a few fleas so Revolution topical was applied. Once back home, Sugar was lethargic and unwilling to eat. His person called the vet clinic and was told to come in and get some transdermal appetite stimulant to apply to his ear. The clinic never suggested bringing him in to be examined. Two days later, Sugar was still not eating. I got the call this morning, asking what ideas I might have and could I help by at least hydrating Sugar since he wasn’t drinking either. Sugar did not have a heart condition, so I felt comfortable giving him some fluids. I also packed up a bag of yummy wet foods that I thought might pique Sugar’s interest. Sadly, once I saw Sugar I knew that his condition was critical. His people bundled him and drove to the nearest emergency vet. Sugar had passed by the time they arrived.

Was it the rabies vaccine or the Revolution, or the combination of the two, that overwhelmed Sugar’s immune system and caused such a reaction that his organs were shutting down 6 days later? If the clinic had asked his guardian to bring him in and prioritized his care, could he have been saved? Obviously I am not a veterinarian, but would an IV bolster and perhaps steroids allowed his body to fight off the effects of the deadly cocktail until he could recover? Several years ago, a close friend’s geriatric kitty was given Revolution at her vet and nearly died. Her vet refused to acknowledge that the flea medication could have caused such a reaction, but gave her fluids as supportive care and fortunately she recovered at home. The common misperception is that vaccines and flea meds purchased at a vet clinic are completely safe. However, I think there’s a growing awareness that we are over vaccinating and overmedicating our animals. I’ve had both kittens and adult cats lay low for days after vaccines, clearly feeling unwell, but they eventually rebounded fine. If you consider the number of cancers our companion animals suffer these days, and ailments such as IBS and allergies, are we affecting their long term health with annual vaccines? We know that rabies vaccinations are now given on alternating legs rather than the back of the neck, since sarcomas are a common side effect and limbs can be amputated if cancer develops. Can you imagine receiving your childhood immunizations every year of your life? Most humans receive vaccinations as babies and then get different vaccines as senior citizens if they are immunocompromised. My friend who attended a prestigious veterinary college 30 years ago was required to receive a rabies vaccine in school. To this day, he still has nerve pain in that arm that started with the shot.

I recognize that vaccines have saved many lives, and in many countries street dogs and community cats would all benefit greatly from being vaccinated (and sterilized). If we look at our affluent kitties living mainly indoor lives however, with “first world problems” of deciding which food they prefer today, does an annual vaccine contribute to their health? Vet clinics often encourage annual vaccinations simply because it’s profitable for the vet clinic. Titer testing is one option if a boarding facility is requiring proof of vaccine. (Hiring a pet sitter and not boarding your animal is a better option.) When I first started my “career” of trap/neuter/return of feral cats, a rule of thumb was that only healthy cats should be vaccinated. If a cat had upper respiratory, a high fever, or infection, you waited to vaccinate. But the last vet I had to part ways with gave a rabies vaccination without my permission to a 12 YO kitty I had in for a pre-dental exam. He had a raging infection in his mouth. The vet didn’t like that I questioned her action and dismissed me by telling me the cat would be fine. The cat hunkered down for several days while the injectable antibiotics worked and he may have felt terrible, but fortunately he recovered. I have seen many cases of vaccinated kitties dying from panleukopenia and FIV, as well as unvaccinated cats recovering from these diseases. My beloved Sidney contracted panleukopenia (distemper) at about 6 weeks of age. He survived to live a vibrant and active life for 19 1/2 years with absolutely no vaccinations.

Sidney as a spunky senior

Regardless of the issue, vaccinating or using flea mediations, we bear the burden of critical thinking for our companion animals. We have an obligation to do the research and come up with our best course of action for our kitties. When we feel something isn't resonating with us as it relates to our kitty, we need to seek a second opinion. Statistically, a treatment option or drug may be ideal for cats, but our precious kitty might be the one in 1,000 who it's not going to work for and may actually harm. Some cats may be easy to handle and treat, while others need sedatives hours before hand and long term treatments may not be sustainable so a different action may be necessary. It’s challenging to get vet appointments with so many doctors and techs retiring, and given the average 8 hour wait at an animal ER, I imagine a lot of companion animals just aren’t getting the medical care they used to - even for those guardians willing and able to pay for it. Our new normal requires a lot of hard decisions, but our kitties completely rely on us and we can’t let them down.


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