The Animal Doctor by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Vaccinations: Needs, Risks and Benefits

DEAR READERS: We need certain vaccines because of the ways we live and work -- and especially how we raise farmed animals for consumption under crowded and often unsanitary conditions with poor air and water quality. These and other environmental factors increase the probability of infectious and contagious disease. And rather than addressing these issues, we have come to over-rely on vaccines, antibiotics and other drugs, profitably promoted as preventive medicine (as was using DDT in the home decades ago).

The overuse of antibiotics has led to the evolution of highly resistant strains of bacteria, increasing human and farmed-animal mortalities. The same can be said about highly toxic herbicides and insecticides leading to the evolution of resistant “weeds” and insect pests. The overuse of vaccines has resulted in an increase in autoimmune and other so-called “vaccinosis” diseases in dogs and humans alike. Some vaccines that are composed of weakened viral strains like measles and polio may cause temporary shedding from recipients, leading to infection of non-vaccinated children and greater susceptibility to other infections in those who are malnourished and have compromised immune systems.

Vaccinations have helped reduce the incidence of zoonoses -- diseases transmissible from animals to humans -- such as rabies and tuberculosis. Expanded immunization of animals as barriers against human exposure has been proposed. Species-specific diseases that can decimate local populations of cats and dogs, such as feline panleukopenia, canine distemper and parvovirus, have been effectively controlled in many communities with vaccinations. Human smallpox has been eradicated globally thanks not only to vaccinations, but to international collaboration and the fact that there are no domestic or wild animal reservoirs of this disease.

Humans are susceptible to few of the hundreds of thousands of animal viruses that exist in nature, but changes in the human-animal interface increase the chances for zoonosis. And experts warn that humans can also transmit viruses to animals. “Any time viruses have the potential to mix and mingle with others, it can cause serious issues, especially when they can jump between animals and people in either direction,” said veterinarian Casey Barton Behravesh, director of the CDC’s One Health Office.

But with rising human and farmed animal populations, and incursion into wildlife habitats, the emergence of new diseases like COVID-19 is inevitable. The SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for this disease is a challenge to vaccinate against: Coronaviruses rapidly multiply, mutate and recombine to create new strains, which could potentially infect a person simultaneously. They also have RNA repair mechanisms that other types of viruses lack. To a far lesser degree, we see this vaccination-effectiveness issue with the failure of influenza vaccines, since newly recombined and unanticipated viral strains come from factory-farmed poultry and pigs around the world. These are also widely spread by international travelers, migratory birds and, some believe, by the microbiome in our planet’s upper atmosphere.

Bioremediation -- restoring healthy, disease-preventing natural ecosystems protected from human encroachment -- along with more effective human population control through family planning and spay-neuter programs for dogs and cats -- would be significant progress. But this can’t happen without a reduction in the use of climate-changing, environment-polluting fossil fuels and worldwide factory-farmed animal production. Their populations must be supplanted, and the acres used to feed these poor animals must be restored, by the rise of organic, regenerative and sustainable food production systems.

If we give life to such long-overdue initiatives now, future generations will have greater health, economic and food security than the millions who are needlessly suffering today. We all must strive to live like the trees, which give more to life than they take, rather than to take all we can for ourselves.

DEAR DR. FOX: I would like your opinion about the most humane dog food. We are needing to put a couple pounds on our 12-year-old rescued collie, Danny. -- J.H., Minneapolis, Minnesota

DEAR J.H.: As part of the aging process, older dogs lose muscle (and weight) through a process called sarcopenia. They need more fat and protein to stave this off. Arthritis may also be involved, along with some kidney dysfunction with loss of protein in the urine.

I would feed The Honest Kitchen freeze-dried dog food (with grains) and add, on alternate days, a tablespoon of cottage cheese, grated Parmesan cheese, blueberries or plain yogurt or kefir; a few drops of Nordic Naturals cod liver oil or good-quality fish oil; a teaspoon of ground turmeric and ginger; and an emptied capsule or crushed tablet (daily human dose) of L-carnitine and chondroitin-glucosamine-MSM. Transition to this new diet over five to seven days.

Older dogs also benefit from good-quality human probiotics, taken daily, and digestive enzymes, which can be provided through a daily tablespoon of canned, unsweetened pineapple or papaya. I also give our dog a little Halo dog kibble and U.S.-made rawhide chews to help keep the teeth clean.

(Send all mail to or to Dr. Michael Fox in care of Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO 64106. The volume of mail received prohibits personal replies, but questions and comments of general interest will be discussed in future columns.

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