Does Your Pet Need a “Lifestyle” Vaccine? (Re-Thinking the Dog Flu)

Lots of chatter lately on the issue of vaccinations, right? Measles wreaks havoc at Disney Land and the once-rare whooping cough makes a return. Given the rise of the “anti-vaxxer” culture, even polio could be poised for a global surge again. But what does this have to do with pets?

Lots, actually. Because plenty of pets go unvaccinated against “core” vaccines, too. Which is bad. But what about so-called “lifestyle” vaccines like the dog flu vax? Is it “bad” to skip those too? 

Here in Miami, where I live, an estimated 80% of veterinarians recommend vaccination against almost every pathogen a vaccine exists for. Even vaccines considered by ACVIM (American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine) and AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) to be “not recommended” are still required by some before they’ll board pets (corona and giardia, for example).

I got to thinking about this in the wake of Chicago’s recent canine influenza ("dog flu") outbreak. Just in case you haven’t heard, here’s the CDC’s take on this:

“Dog flu (H3N8) is a contagious respiratory disease in dogs that does not cause illness in humans. A vaccine against this disease in dogs has been available since 2009. CDC recommends that people concerned about dog flu speak to their veterinarian.
Signs of dog flu infection include cough, runny nose and fever, but not all dogs will exhibit signs. The severity of illness associated with dog flu can range from no signs to severe illness resulting in pneumonia and sometimes death. Tests are available to determine if a dog has been infected, and your veterinarian can tell you if testing is appropriate. You and your veterinarian can also discuss whether vaccinating your dog against canine influenza is indicated.”

In Chicago, more than 1,000 dogs have reportedly been infected and five fatalities have been reported by the H3N2 strain (not the standard H3N8). This is not your normal kennel cough. Still, along with the bacteria known as Bordetella bronchiceptica and several others it’s considered one among many possible causes of canine infectious respiratory disease (CIRD) complex, aka “kennel cough.”  

The outbreak has justifiably rattled veterinarians in Chicago and across the US. But the question remains: Should your dog be vaccinated? 

If your dog lives in his bubble of a home and only infrequently interacts with other dogs, does he need a vaccine for canine influenza? How about bordetella? Lyme disease?

Same goes for cats who don’t spend any time outdoors and therefore have no contact with other cats. Should they be vaccinated against feline leukemia? 

The answer will differ depending on where you live, what your household looks like, what kinds of intra- and inter-species interactions your pets may be subject to, the effectiveness of the vaccine and other issues. But according to those in our profession who endeavor to make rational recommendations on the basis of science (not hype), these vaccines are considered non-core “lifestyle” vaccines. In other words, only pets whose lifestyle put them at risk should be vaccinated.

Sure, determining a pet’s true risk can be tricky. For example, let’s say your cats never go outdoors but you have a tendency to bring in a stray kitten once every year or so. Is your household more at risk of feline leukemia? Sure. But is the potential reward worth even the small risk and expense of annual vaccination? Maybe not. 

Back to canine influenza: Should a not-so-social Chicago dog be vaccinated against this pathogen? Hmmm … probably not.

Not only do I bristle against the fear-mongering methods employed by its manufacturers, the truth is that this vaccine has serious problems:

  • The vaccine doesn’t prevent infection, it simply seems to reduce the severity of the disease.
  • The maximum duration of immunity induced by the vaccine is unknown. 
  • We don’t yet know whether there’s any benefit at all to vaccinating dogs around the time of exposure (the vaccine generally takes a week or two to take effect). 
  • The evolution of field strains of this virus might make the vaccine ineffective over time (indeed, it might well be completely ineffective against this new H3N2 Chicago bug).

My verdict? Every veterinarian will doubtless hold a different opinion, but I believe the aggressive marketing of this vaccine has led to an exaggerated perception of this disease’s threat and an excess of confidence in the vaccine’s efficacy. 

Notwithstanding its obvious limitations, reports indicate that the dog flu vaccine is being whipped out with astounding alacrity. And not just in Chicago. The canine influenza vaccine is landing on veterinary menus across the US. Indeed, despite a dearth of cases, it’s been catching on as an annual must-have even here in Miami. 

Despite my dim view of the current dog flu vaccine, I’m no anti-vaxxer. But I am a pragmatist. As such, I prefer to stick to the science when making my determinations on whether I’ll employ a vaccine or not. What’s more, I believe that when it comes to “lifestyle” vaccines, owners should get a say in the matter, not a blanket recommendation and an automated reminder. 

Call me old-fashioned but I like to treat my clients the same way I expect my own physician to treat me: With a science-based recommendations, attention to my individual needs, and a healthy respect for my intelligence. What's so hard about that?