Do Most Americans Fear Vaccines for Dogs??

Look, I know you guys don’t come here for the science, the critical thinking, the space communism. You come here for the ten seconds of my dog at the end of the video. With that in mind, today’s video is all about Indy. Well, about dogs, in general. I’ll throw in some random Indy pics throughout just to keep you watching.

There are two dog-centric news stories that caught my eye this week, and they share something in common: humans pushing pseudoscience onto their 4-legged companions.

First up is “grain-free” dog food, a fad that resembles a much older fad in human diets: vilifying carbohydrates and/or a subset of foods that are made up of primarily carbohydrates. Whether they’re doing Atkins or keto or carnivore or gluten free, a ton of people think that one of the macronutrients humans require for survival is causing them ill health. And hey, some people ARE healthier on one of those diets: people with Celiac’s disease will literally die if they keep eating gluten, and children with hard-to-treat epilepsy can find benefits in a strictly controlled ketogenic diet. And yeah, lots of people find it easier to eat less and lose weight on a diet that eliminates a huge portion of the foods they tend to snack on (though whether or not that’s sustainable for them long-term is up to the individual). But for most people, there’s no evidence to suggest that there’s any real health benefit to eliminating or nearly eliminating carbs or grains from their diet. People, after all, are omnivores. We evolved to eat all kinds of things, and our bodies are quite happy with variety.

Dogs, of course, evolved with humans for the past 20,000 years or so, and they spent a lot of that time eating our food scraps. However, their closest living relative is the grey wolf, and wolves are most certainly carnivores. So in addition to people fearing carbohydrates these days, they also mistakenly believe that dogs “naturally” would be healthier if they ate the same way as their wolfy ancestors. And thus, the husky became the hottest dog food bag model on the market as companies rushed to produce “grain-free” kibble for people to feed their tiny, deformed wolves.

As an aside, I adopted Indy when he was 3 months old and I was informed that he was a german shepherd mix. I was very excited for him to grow into a large, tough looking dog. Anyway.

A few years ago, Indy’s veterinarian asked me if he ate a grain-free diet. He didn’t, so I asked if I should switch. She said no, because the FDA had released a warning that grain-free dog food may be linked to a potentially deadly heart condition known as dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. There are usually no symptoms until the dog goes into heart failure, which is absolutely terrifying. I was glad that I hadn’t fallen for the majestic wolf marketing and went on feeding Indy his usual kibble.

At the time, I had just assumed that there must be something in grains that prevents DCM in dogs, and I didn’t think any more of it. But this week I learned that I was WRONG: the link that researchers noticed between grain-free dog food and DCM wasn’t due to the lack of grains, but to the addition of products meant to REPLACE the grains. Dog food manufacturers don’t throw elk steaks in a bag and call it a day – they still want to pad out the expensive meat byproducts with something, so instead of “grains” like wheat, corn, or rice, they use other ingredients. And researchers suspected one or more of THOSE ingredients might be to blame.

Sure enough, in 2021 researchers compared the dog food brands that were associated with DCM to a bunch of brands that weren’t, and they found that peas, lentils, chickpeas, potatoes, and sweet potatoes kept popping up as likely culprits. This past May, another group of scientists followed up on that by feeding eight dogs one of three diets each month for three months: a pea-based diet, a lentil-based diet, or a regular kibble diet. They switched the diets each month and looked for biomarkers that would point to DCM, which is nice because I guess the other way to do this would be to force feed a bunch of dogs peas or lentils until their hearts explode. They found that when the dogs were fed a diet heavy in peas, but not the other two diets, their risk of DCM increased significantly.

Now, does that mean peas are going to kill your dog, and lentils are safe? No. DCM is also a condition that some dog breeds are at higher risk for, particularly larger breeds like great Danes and, um, German shepherds. And so it’s a good thing Indy is certainly NOT a German shepherd, because it turns out the perfectly normal, not-grain-free kibble I’ve been feeding him lists peas as a major ingredient. Whoops! But that genetic predisposition in some dogs may mean that even if researchers work out exactly which ingredients in which amounts are causing the problem, some dogs will still suffer from DCM while others are perfectly fine, regardless of diet.

So I will be switching him to a different kibble just to be on the safe side. There are a million options out there and it’s not a big deal for me to avoid peas, so I’ll be doing that AND trying to avoid lentils, potatoes, and sweet potatoes as well because why not.

Okay, on to the second story I saw this week, which is that the “Majority of US dog owners now skeptical of vaccines, including for rabies: study”. Now, when I first saw that headline on The Hill, I thought, “absolutely no way are we at this low of a low in our society. Surely this comes from a poll on Xitter or Facebook or something where anti-vaccine kooks are running amok. And so I read the study it’s based on and…I mean it’s a little better but also a little worse than I thought.

The poll wasn’t run on social media – it was done in partnership with YouGov and they got responses from 2,200 people who were a representative sample of the US population. Sigh. But, here is what the study authors say they found: “a large minority of dog owners consider vaccines administered to dogs to be unsafe (37%), ineffective (22%), and/or unnecessary (30%). A slight majority of dog owners (53%) endorse at least one of these three positions.”

Now, even I MIGHT be included in that “slight majority” because of the “unnecessary” question, which was essentially “(Are) most vaccines that dogs receive are medically necessary (?)”. I would probably say yes, but some vaccines really ARE unnecessary for some dogs, depending upon their age and lifestyle, like the vaccinations for leptospirosis, Bordetella, influenza and Lyme disease. Indy gets everything because he lives a life of wild and reckless abandon, sniffing strange dog butts and drinking from mountain streams, but not all dogs are Indy. Unfortunately. But I do think that some people could reasonably think that there are a lot of vaccines available for dogs and in their case, most of them are unnecessary.

So that’s some good news: there’s some wiggle room in that “majority” of Americans who expressed some hesitancy about vaccines, in general. 

Now for the bad news, which is that 37% of respondents who thought vaccines are harmful. After reading the survey questions I realized it’s even worse than that: 37% of people agreed that “Some vaccines for dogs can cause them to develop cognitive issues, like canine autism.” 22% said that “??The risks posed by possible side effects of vaccinating dogs outweigh their benefits.”

YIKES. Researchers don’t even agree on whether a dog CAN have autism, for a start, but NO, VACCINES CANNOT GIVE YOUR DOG AUTISM. Fucking Christ. This honestly makes me feel so bad for the people who are on the autism spectrum who already have to deal with antivaxxers using autism as the Big Bad Disease that must be avoided at all cost even if your baby has to die of measles, but to see that a 1 out of 5 of Americans doesn’t even want to vaccinate their fucking DOG because it’ll give them autism? Jesus Christ, just burn it all down.

Okay, don’t burn it ALL down. I mean, where would Indy sleep if we did? This was just one survey, and local laws still exist to encourage people to actually get their dogs vaccinated, at least for rabies, which, if you didn’t know, has a 100% fatality rate once symptoms appear. Like, you really don’t want to get rabies, nor should you want your pets to get it.

So please vaccinate your pets, encourage your friends and family to keep their own pets up to date on their vaccines, and breathe a sigh of relief that there’s some wiggle room and maybe the majority of Americans aren’t skeptical of vaccinating their dogs. You know what? Here’s a video of Indy.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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