Pets: Local expert dispels myths about indoor cats and vaccinations
flickr photo courtesy of pmarkham
A very sticky situation avails itself once in a while: a human is bitten by someone's pet — maybe their own. Bites are always a worry, regardless of whether it's a dog or a cat, and for several reasons. Why did they bite? How severe is the wound? And most of all, what's the risk of infection and the chance of contracting disease?
The latter should be of real concern whether it's a bite from either species, and because of social attitudes regarding felines, it tends not to be a worry when the pet biting is a cat. That's unfortunate.
In our society, there tends to be a lot of misinformation when it comes to cats. People commonly think that cats are not social, that they can fend for themselves, that they do not need attention in the way that dogs do. One of the most prevalent myths: cats don't need vaccinations.
There is a lot of controversy with regard to the topic of having cats inocculated against preventable diseases, but one thing is clear: understanding the ramifications of diseases that can be contracted is vital in making the choice to not vaccinate.
And as Bill MacArthur, DVM of Affordable Veterinary Services in Ann Arbor, explains, "It's a matter of public health."
Not getting core vaccines — FVRCP and rabies — can prove to have severe consequences not just for the individual pets themselves, but the animals that they come into contact with and people.
As a veterinarian for 17 years as well being a molecular biologist, MacArthur ought to know.
"I see cats come in with preventable diseases that are gravely sick, and their owners say, 'I wish there was something that could be done' — and in these cases, there was something that could have been done prior to illness — a simple injection before being exposed to these things."
He's referring to things like panleukopenia — a highly contagious virus and closely related to the canine parvo virus. This opportunistic, stable virus is tough and ubiquitous.
Since it can survive on surfaces indoors at room temperature for over a year and also at freezing temperatures, if a feline that has an active infection sheds the virus (which it does by way of all bodily fluids and secretions), other cats that come into contact with it will also be infected. Due to a feline's habit of rubbing up on everything and being fastidious about grooming, it's easy for them to pick up this virus.
As MacArthur points out, "They're living mops."
Symptoms of panleukopenia include fever, weight loss, diarrhea and vomiting.
If the virus' virulency and ease of transmission isn't enough to convince cat owners to have their cats inoculated against it, here's another reason — the virus shuts down the immune system by suppressing white cell production. No white blood cells, no ability to fight infection, period.
MacArthur is adamant that all cats need to be vaccinated against panleukopenia to give them protection against becoming infected, and the vaccination is usually administered along with two others (referred to a multivalent, or combination vaccine): calicivirus (FCV), which causes upper respiratory infections and oral disease, and rhinotracheitis (FVR), an upper respiatory infection caused by the feline herpesvirus. This shot is typically referred to as FVRCP.
Another disease that we have heard a lot about in recent weeks, is rabies. Any mammal can carry the virus, and for that reason, it's the other of the core vaccines that MacArthur insists that are "must-haves" for in this case, felines. Rabies is recognizable to those with and without pets, and for good reason.
"Rabies is 100 percent fatal if untreated, plain and simple," states MacArthur flatly.
It's a serious matter, and in fact, Ann Arbor has an ordinance that mandates that all felines over the age of 6 months must have it, and it must be administered by a liscensed veterinarian. Violating the city ordinance can result in a ticket.
Some cat owners think that because their cats are strictly indoor animals and don't venture outside, they don't need to be vaccinated at all. However, they're wrong, as MacArthur points out.
As a human, you're inadvertently bringing stuff into your home on your shoes, your hands, your clothes, etc. Additionally, if you have other pets and they venture outdoors — or if you have other pets who visit your home — they bring those viruses and the like (think parasites) in with them and expose your unprotected cats to something that could make them seriously ill or kill them.
Lapses in vaccinations are a problem, too. Rabies vaccinations, as an example, start with one shot that is good for a year. Thereafter, a shot is given every three years. If a pet owner allows the time in between scheduled shots to lapse, the schedule starts all over — back to a one year vaccine, and protection in that interim period is sketchy.
One situation that an owner of an unvaccinated cat doesn't want to face having the animal bite someone. Because the presence of rabies isn't always clear when the bite occurs — mammals with the virus don't always present with symptoms right away — there is a mandatory quarantine period of 10 days, and the victim is given a series of post-exposure vaccinations. Bite victims in this scenario are usually not willing to forgo prophylactic treatment until after the quarantine period.
The quarantine period for vaccinated cats who have bitten is 10 days as well.
The symptoms that are associated with rabies can include unusual behavior/shyness or aggression, inability to swallow, fever, pica, paralysis, excessive salivation and more. Because the virus attacks the central nervous system, a infected feline can have problems with coordination and balance, too.
If your cat is hasn't been vaccinated or isn't up-to-date and the cat bites someone and is presenting with symptoms that are consistent with rabies, the news isn't good.
"The cat has to be euthanized immediately, because the only way that we can be sure that an animal has rabies," MacArthur says grimly, "is to perform a necropsy so that brain tissue can be analyzed."
The same goes for cats who present with like symptoms from a previously diagnosed neurological illness such as intervertebral disk disease. Clinicians just can't take any chances.
For some cat owners, the felineleukemia (FeLV) vaccine is something to think about as well. It's a virus that, once again, suppresses the immune system and one that can be prevented with a vaccine.
A higher percentage of intact, male cats who spend time outdoors are at risk of developing it if not protected against it. The reason? Felines in this demographic get in more fights, get bite wounds — even minimally — and the virus enters the body that way.
Controversy in the public realm continues to whirl around whether vaccines are safe.
As MacArthur emphasizes, they are, and any risk is very low when one considers the benefits gained. And considering the cost breakdown — which is minimal — it's a no-brainer.
He acknowledges that a tiny pertcentage of pets have a reaction to a vaccine, and in those animals who are known to experience those problems, a protocol to pre-medicate them with steroids and antihistamines is followed, yielding great results.
Other cat owners are concerned about vaccine induced sarcomas — a type of tumor — but as MacArthur makes clear, the incidence of this is rare. Additionally, there are new protocols in place to make removal of the tumors easier if they do appear.
Despite any controversy that is out there and the claim by some that cats are over-vaccinated, in our culture, core vaccines are a great tool on the front lines of maintaining public health for that of pets and humans alike.