In recent years, cat lovers have been horrified by reports of deadly tumors caused by something that's supposed to save the lives of their pets -- routine vaccinations. Unfortunately the disease called vaccine-associated feline sarcoma, or feline vaccine-site sarcoma, is more than a rumor, and it has claimed the lives of many cats.
Researchers now believe tumors occur in cats who have been given feline leukemia or rabies vaccines, and not in those who've been given protection against feline panleukopenia, feline rhinotracheitis and feline calicivirus. (The combination vaccine that protects against these latter illnesses is referred to by the initials FVRCP, and may also include protection against feline chlamydiosis.)
No one is quite sure why the problems occur with leukemia or rabies vaccines, and the cancer risk is low -- about one cat per 10,000 vaccinated. It's important to remember that vaccines remain an important tool of preventive care, especially when compared to the dangers of not vaccinating your cat. After all, not vaccinating risks not only your cat's health, but also, in the case of rabies, your own.
To help protect your cat, you should take the following precautions.
-- At your pet's annual examination, discuss with your veterinarian which vaccines your cat really needs. Because of the number of cats infected with rabies -- since 1981, more cats than dogs in the United States have been diagnosed with rabies -- rabies protection is important, and it is required by law in an increasing number of places. Your cat may not need to be vaccinated against feline leukemia, however, if he's always kept indoors and doesn't interact with other cats.
-- Discuss with your veterinarian the location of the vaccine injections, and ask her to use single-agent vaccines instead of ones that protect against a combination of diseases. Recent recommendations include giving each vaccine in a specific location to help confirm which vaccines are responsible for any problem, and to allow for more treatment options should such a problem develop.
-- Make sure your veterinarian notes the vaccination sites on your pet's health record, as well as information on the vaccines, such as the name of the manufacturer and the serial number.
-- Be aware of any lumps at the vaccine sites. A small lump immediately after vaccination is normal, but call your veterinarian if the lump grows or persists beyond three weeks.
Research is ongoing to speed the development of vaccines that are less likely to cause vaccine-associated sarcomas. The first generation of "less reactive" vaccines is on the market now, but it is too early to know if these vaccines will fulfill their promise of being less likely to cause vaccine-associated cancer. As always, it's essential to consult your veterinarian for the latest information on this and other important preventive health measures.
PETS ON THE WEB
One of my favorite cartoons is by Peter Steiner. It depicts a dog sitting in front of a computer, talking to another dog who's sitting on the floor next to his chair. "On the Internet," explains the dog at the keyboard, "nobody knows you're a dog."
I'm not the only one who thinks it's a hoot, for on the New Yorker's cartoon Web site (www.cartoonbank.com), this little bit of inspired canine humor is very popular, indeed. You can buy a framed print for $195, or a T-shirt for $15.
You can also send the image to a friend, as an electronic greeting card, and that's the real beauty of this Web site. By clicking on "Ecards" and then on "Cats" or "Dogs," you can choose from 84 classic New Yorker cartoons, add your own message on the side, and e-mail it to any animal-loving friend you choose -- and it won't cost you a dime.
If you're a shade-tree mechanic, take extra care when changing your car's coolant. Antifreeze poses a deadly risk to pets: Thousands of them are poisoned every year, and a high percentage of them die as a result. And it doesn't take much to do the damage. Your cat can ingest a lethal dose merely by walking through a puddle and then licking the solution off his paws.
Make sure you wipe up any spills immediately when working with toxic chemicals. Even better, consider switching to a less toxic brand of antifreeze. Traditional antifreeze is made from ethylene glycol, while the new products are made from propylene glycol. But you don't have to remember all that, because the "pet-safe" brands happily trumpet their benefits on the label. Check them out at any auto-supply store.
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I've noticed lately that every van and sport utility vehicle seems to come factory equipped with a barrier behind the back seat to keep dogs in the cargo area. Is this a safe way to transport a dog? -- R.K., via e-mail
A: You might want to ask author Stephen King that question. His near-fatal accident last summer happened when he was struck by a man who was wrestling with an out-of-control dog in the car. It's a good bet that if the dog were safely behind a barrier, the accident would never have happened.
So barriers are a good idea for the safety of humans, but what about the dogs? By far the safest way to transport a pet is in a shipping crate. The ones designed for air travel and made of high-impact plastic are so sturdy that a Labrador puppy in a crate was one of few survivors in an airline disaster. A crate that's secured (you don't want the crate and the pet flying around in a car crash) provides a high degree of safety for human and animal passengers alike. If you can equip your vehicle with crates, you're probably better off.
Problem is, for big dogs you need big crates. They don't fit in sedans, and they take up a lot of space in vans and SUVs if you intend to leave them set up. That's highly impractical, which is why we're seeing so many of those barriers you describe. I think they're a good compromise between safety and convenience, and I have to admit my own two retrievers travel behind one in my van.
My smallest dog, Andy the sheltie, usually rides in the passenger-side seat, and for him, I've opted for another safety device: He wears a seat belt. The contraption consists of a padded harness with a short length of heavy-duty fabric ending in a clasp with a loop through which the regular seat belt is fed. You'll find many variations on this basic design: Some manufacturers offer just the connector piece, and you supply the harness. I've also seen ones that click directly into the seat-beat clasp.
Please note that no one knows exactly how well these strategies work. The government's safety tests don't include little dog and cat crash-test dummies, after all. But we do know that having animals secured helps keep the driver focused on the road, and anything that does that goes a long way toward preventing accidents.
Q: I have a comment about your recent column on longhaired cats vs. shorthaired cats. As every cat lover knows, no outfit is complete without cat hair. -- H.E., via e-mail
A. I can certainly say that I've never left the house without fur on me, no matter how much time I might have spent with the lint-roller before stepping out the door. A little fur is a small price to pay for the love we get from our animals.
Once I heard a comment about animals that's both funny and true: A true animal lover is a person who'll send back a meal in a restaurant because there's a human hair in it, but who at home will pick pet fur off the butter and eat without a moment's hesitation.
And since everyone who reads my column knows I am indeed a true animal lover, I'm guessing I'll now be getting polite refusals from those I've invited over to dinner for a long time to come. No matter. Anyone who has ever eaten at my home knows I'm a lousy cook anyway.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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