(Author's note - Since we're in the dog days of summer and I need to let several brewing stories develop on their own timetable I submit the following shaggy dog story.)
As a science teacher my summers are spent at home while my wife goes back to her job as a speech therapist. I'm the man of the house, responsible for all appointments for my twelve-year-old daughter Jacqueline who has autism, my normally developing and very active, ten-year-old son Ben, and our five-year-old dog, Bugzy. For the dog lovers among you Bugzy is a mix of terrier and pomeranian, has white fur, and weighs about twenty pounds.
My lovely wife informed me I needed to take Bugzy to the veterinarian for his annual check-up, something I always dread doing. We adopted Bugzy from a rescue shelter as a three-year-old and I had worried when we got him it appeared he had received a double dose of his vaccines before we adopted him.
Now as a parent with a vaccine-injured daughter, a son who went mute for twelve days after his eighteen month series of shots, thus pushing me into a life of activism, concern for my dog should probably rank quite low on my list.
But as I've researched human vaccines I've also become aware of problems with animal vaccines. Yes, I know that they removed thimerosal from animal vaccines long before anything similar was attempted with pediatric vaccines, but still my worry remains.
The article noted, "An estimated three of 10,000 vaccinated cats will develop cancerous tumors in the spots where they've received routine shots, such as those that protect against rabies and feline leukemia. Veterinary experts aren't sure why this happens. But since 1996, they have recommended limiting the number and frequency of shots that cats receive because of the tumor risk. They have also recommended that cats get injections as low as possible on their legs to increase their odds of survival and allow for amputation of the limb if needed to remove a tumor."
Now, call me crazy, but I think veterinary experts should probably be trying to determine why vaccines are causing injection site cancers in cats rather than being satisfied with the possibility of chopping off a leg.
It was with all of these concerns I took Bugzy to my local vet for his yearly check-up. I dutifully had a poop sample ready for them to check for parasites, I let them do a blood draw to check for heartworm, I let them do a tartar cleaning of his teeth, and they even clipped his nails. I felt like I was checking everything off the list while avoiding the inevitable vaccine questions, when the vet said, "The only thing really left is his rabies shot, which an animal should get every three years."
I paused for a moment. Images of a foaming, rabid dog came to my mind, Atticus Finch in the movie To Kill a Mockingbird shooting a rabid dog which was stalking about town. My emotions were just about to get the better of me when I asked, "What's the risk of rabies?"
"Not very high," he conceeded. "Around here the most likely culprits are bats and skunks. Could happen that a rabid bat might die in your yard, the dog would eat it, and get rabies. If he did, then all of you would probably need to get the shots and they're pretty painful."
"I've never seen a dead bat," I said.
"They're around," he replied.
"So first there would have to be a dead bat in my yard, it would have to have rabies, and then my dog would have to eat it? That's the chain of events?"
"Let me do a little research before I say yes," I told him.
"Okay," he said, "But if you're going on the internet remember that the information you get might not be accurate."
I went home and found the California Department of Health Services web-site for rabies by county and species for the state of California from 1996-2005. During that time in my county of over more than a million people there was not one reported case of rabies in dogs and no cases among humans. The total number of human rabies cases in my state of more than thirty million people over that ten-year period stood at 5.
After the 1996-2005 time period I did find a case, though, in my county from late 2005. The article noted it was the first time a domestic animal had tested positive for rabies in 17 years in my county, and since I could find no other cases it seems likely it's the only case for the past 22 years.
But even that single case of an abandoned kitten which was picked up by a kind family raised a red flag with me. According to the story, "The kitten was picked up Oct. 11 near the intersection of Alcosta Boulevard and San Ramon Road. It was taken to a nearby home where it was kept inside as a family pet. The following day, the family took the kitten to the Bishop Veterinary Center for a check-up. It was a little dehydrated and had worms, but otherwise seemed okay. 'We started vaccinating it,' said veterinary hospital administrator Margaret Urquhart. "It was healthy at that time."
About a month later the family rushed the kitten back to the veterinary center because it had a fever and wasn't acting right." Later analysis showed it had rabies and it was theorized that it might have been bitten by a bat.
I was still a little confused. Does the danger come from being bitten by a rabid bat or eating one? Maybe both can cause an infection. And if the cat was fully vaccinated, how did it get rabies? Was the disease process already under way? Can a rabies shot actually cause rabies, especially in a small, underweight, dehydrated animal?
I can't claim to be an expert on bat-rabies infection patterns. But I thought of all the pet ailments I've heard over the past few years that I never recall hearing during my youth. In addition to pet cancers, there are pet seizures, pet diabetes, and my in-laws recently had to euthanize their dog because of a brain tumor. Something is amiss in our pets as surely as it's amiss in our children.
When I told my wife about it later that night she said, "You don't have to worry about rabies anyway."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because when we adopted him they'd already given him his rabies shot. That was only two years ago. He still has another year to go until he's even supposed to get another of those shots."
So my dog is actually up to date on all his vaccinations. I still like to think he's my rebel dog, standing by my side as we fight for our injured children. I just know I'm not going to let him go out at night to play with any of the bats.
Kent Heckenlively is Contributing Editor of Age of Autism