Dog Days

Jim Schwartz believes pet vaccinations sometimes do more harm than good.

Jim Schwartz lives in Centennial, in a home with a sign on the front door announcing that visitors are entering "The Dog House." When guests ring the doorbell, the refrain from the pop song "Who Let the Dogs Out" plays over a speaker, and Schwartz's three large black poodles begin barking. In the basement "dog room," a full-color mural takes up much of one wall. The three dogs -- Max, Moishe and Elle -- are pictured resting in a bucolic valley. Behind them, on four painted depictions of marble pedestals, Schwartz's deceased dogs have been immortalized.

One of them, a salt-and-pepper poodle named Moolah, is the reason Schwartz has decided to take on the entire veterinary profession.

A retired financial planner and conservative Republican, Schwartz never imagined that he would find himself publicly criticizing the people who maintain the health of his beloved dogs. His transformation began, though, in 1999, when he took eleven-year-old Moolah into the vet's office for her annual rabies vaccination.

Schwartz had been told that Arapahoe County requires all dogs to get shots yearly, so he thought he was being a responsible pet owner. Moolah was an old dog who already had health problems, but it never occurred to Schwartz that the vaccination might weaken her immune system. "Moolah got sick right after the shot and then she died," he says. "There's no doubt in my mind she had an adverse reaction to the vaccination."

So Schwartz began researching the effects of vaccinations on pets. He was shocked to discover that most veterinarians are aware that a certain percentage of cats and dogs have potentially fatal reactions to the shots. Even more surprising is that most pet doctors also encourage their clients to bring animals in for annual vaccines, even though professional organizations now say that for the most common diseases -- including rabies and distemper -- they need to be administered only every three years to protect the animal.

In addition, Schwartz found out that what he'd been told about Arapahoe County regulations was wrong: Under state law, local governments can't require animals to be inoculated more frequently than what's recommended by the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians. That group says that it's now appropriate to give most of the important shots, like the rabies vaccination, once every three years for most household pets.

Why, Schwartz asked himself, would animal-loving vets encourage annual shots that weren't necessary and might even be harmful? His background in finance soon led him to an answer: Vaccinations are a huge money maker for most veterinarians. "Follow the money," he says. "There's an economic motivation for over-vaccination."

Vets usually pay less than a dollar per dose, but they typically charge clients $15 to $25 per injection. Many vets also tack on a fee for office visits, which can run from $30 to $35. In other words, vaccinations are very important to a typical veterinarian's practice -- something that is clearly reflected in several articles that have appeared in the last few years in trade publications.

"Without that annual vaccination visit, we are challenged to get clients through the door for a wellness exam," reads a 1998 article in Veterinary Business. "There is still a large group of practitioners who view vaccine charges as yet another profit center to evaporate." And an article in the January 1998 issue of Veterinary Economics asks, "Will vaccine income drop? New protocols urge cat vaccinations every three years. Competitive pricing and clients' perception of vaccines as commodities are reducing this income."

Dr. Betty Jo Black is a Wheat Ridge veterinarian who now inoculates animals as little as possible. She administers the vaccines to puppies and kittens and then monitors each animal's blood for the presence of antibodies. If it's been several years since the initial vaccination, she'll give a booster shot.

When she started as a vet, Black often gave vaccinations every six months, believing it was the best thing for the animals, so she's skeptical of the idea that vets over-vaccinate to bring in extra cash. "A lot of vets really believe the annual vaccinations are necessary. I've never had anybody tell me, 'I'm going to give this vaccine because I need the money.'"

The percentage of pets that have adverse reactions to shots is a subject of controversy. Many professional groups cite the estimate that one in every 10,000 cats develops a cancerous tumor as a result of inoculations for rabies and feline leukemia. A 2000 study in the United Kingdom estimated that 7 to 12 percent of both dogs and cats have some type of adverse reaction to vaccinations.

At Colorado State University's well-regarded Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the vaccination protocol discourages annual vaccinations for most animals and notes the "increasing documentation showing that over-vaccinating has been associated with harmful side effects. Of particular note in this regard has been the association of autoimmune hemolytic anemia with vaccination in dogs and vaccine-associated sarcomas in cats -- both of which are often fatal."

After watching Moolah die, Schwartz looked into filing a lawsuit against his vet, but he discovered that he had little legal recourse, because Colorado's consumer laws don't cover veterinarians. Also, pets are regarded as personal property, meaning their owners have a difficult time collecting for damages beyond the dollar value of the animal. Now Schwartz is working with state legislators to see if he can change Colorado law to give animals and their guardians more rights.

"The law needs to be changed to recognize the economic loss of partnership," he says. "Pets are not property; they're next of kin."

 
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