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Risks of Too-Early Rabies Vaccinations

I asked Dr. Dodds to talk about her concerns about vaccinating puppies too early in life.

She explained that at 12 weeks, puppies are at a critical age for socialization. This is around the time they leave their litters and go to new homes. They are also receiving combination vaccines for core diseases like distemper and adenovirus, and in some regions they’re also receiving Lyme, leptospirosis and/or other non-core vaccines. They’re getting what are called “combo-wombo” vaccines at the critical age of 12 weeks when the immune system is just beginning to mature and may be unable to handle the immunological challenge of multiple vaccines.

Puppies at this age are getting lots of vaccinations, leaving their litters, going to new homes, adjusting to new environments including new food, and possibly the presence of children and other pets. Now we want to take these poor puppies and give them another very strong, neurogenic vaccine at the same time – a vaccine that can be affected and neutralized by residual maternal immunity. This is worrisome. This is not the time, in Dr. Dodds view or mine, to give an additional vaccination on top of the other vaccines and all the other changes puppies are dealing with.

Other Risks Associated with Too-Early Rabies Vaccination

I asked Dr. Dodds if she has any other concerns about rabies vaccines in puppies under 16 weeks of age. Her response was that vaccines are not “sterile water.” They’re full of adjuvants and other substances that stimulate the immune system. They contain fetal calf serum. They contain activators. The purpose of vaccines is to stimulate the immune system in a very powerful way so it will produce antibodies.

When we’ve got young puppies who are going through all kinds of life changes – physical and psychological – their immune systems will be suppressed to some degree by the stress of all they are experiencing for the first time. We don’t want to overdo vaccinations at this critical time if we don’t have to.

So it’s possible that a puppy with residual maternal immunity against rabies who receives a rabies vaccination too early may wind up unprotected against the disease. And if for some reason that dog doesn’t receive a follow-up vaccination a year later, he could live his whole life unprotected from rabies. Since the whole point of vaccinations is to provide protection against disease, it doesn’t make any sense to time vaccines such that immunity may not be achieved.

Dr. Dodds explained that some animals don’t mount very good rabies immunity. That’s why two initial vaccinations are given within 12 months to insure that all pets are actually immunized – not just vaccinated. There’s a big difference between giving a vaccination and creating immunity. I think sometimes even veterinarians forget that distinction.

Another concern is that all but two types of rabies vaccines contain thimerosal, which is mercury, and we really don’t want to give mercury to animals with their vaccines.

Dangers of Adverse Rabies Vaccine Reactions

I asked Dr. Dodds to talk about what we are looking at in terms of potential vaccine reactions if California AB 272 is passed. Because most traditional veterinarians view vaccine reactions as either anaphylaxis (type I allergic reaction) or a type II reaction involving facial swelling, trouble breathing, hives, and other visible signs of an allergic response. But there are also delayed reactions that most vets don’t really think about, and don't often associate with vaccines.

If we’re vaccinating puppies with a very strong, adjuvanted vaccine at a younger age, what should pet owners look for in terms of potential vaccine reactions?

Dr. Dodds responded that she wishes she had a dollar for every frantic call she gets from a pet owner or veterinarian about an adverse reaction from a rabies vaccination. Many vets, including those at veterinary teaching hospitals, get confused about just what you described – the type I/type II more immediate reactions vs. delayed reactions.

In fact, according to Dr. Dodds there were two puppies in New Jersey that had severe rabies vaccine reactions seven days post-vaccination. Most delayed reactions occur between seven and 21 days after vaccination, but some don’t occur for up to 45 days. These two puppies were referred to a veterinary teaching hospital in the Northeast, and the owners were told the problem couldn’t be a rabies vaccine reaction because it was too long after the shots were given.

What you see very often with delayed reactions in young puppies are very disturbing symptoms like seizures or severe, adverse temperament changes such as irritability, snapping, or acting dazed. These puppies can exhibit odd behaviors like “fly-snapping” and staring at the ceiling. The seizures are of course very worrisome, because many people assume young puppies with seizures have congenital epilepsy. In fact, there have been instances where veterinarians have told owners they bought their dog from an irresponsible breeder who breeds epileptic dogs, when in fact the animal is having a delayed adverse reaction to a rabies vaccination. Dr. Dodds even knows of veterinary neurologists who don’t recognize the symptoms as an adverse vaccine reaction.

As Dr. Dodds explains, vaccine reactions can destroy joints, cause high fevers, and even cause the animal to scream out in pain when touched. They can destroy red blood cells and platelets. They can destroy the liver. But the scariest reactions involve neurological behavioral changes. Some of these puppies wind up abandoned or euthanized when all that was needed was detoxification support to address the rabies vaccinosis reaction.

Dr. Dodds feels very uncomfortable that veterinarians and pet owners are not being taught to recognize the adverse effects of rabies and other vaccines. Distemper vaccine reactions can also involve neurological signs, especially if the vaccine contains modified live virus -- the Rockborn strain of virus – that is known to produce post-vaccinal encephalitis. So we’re talking about post-vaccinal encephalitis from adjuvanted rabies vaccines with lots of immune system stimulants as well as from modified live distemper virus vaccines.

Pet Owners CAN Make a Difference!

Hopefully in states with this type of rabies vaccine legislation in the works, pet owners will get involved – because this will impact everyone’s pet. Another thing to keep in mind is if you’re forced to have your dog vaccinated for rabies at 12 weeks, you’ll want to be in touch with a holistic vet who can provide detoxification support.

Dr. Dodds also suggests visiting the Rabies Challenge Fund website. Dr. Dodds and Kris Christine are the co-trustees of the fund. Kris Christine has worked tirelessly to get uniform acceptance of a three-year booster requirement for rabies vaccines throughout the U.S. The site contains a wealth of information on pending and existing legislation and instructions on how to write to your congressional representatives to help them understand or learn more about the issue. 

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