Last week, one of my Facebook friends shared a link to a TV news story about Hozart, a cat dying of cancer — a cancer that appeared exactly at the site where he’d had a vaccination for feline leukemia earlier that year.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard about vaccine-associated sarcomas. It’s also not the first time I’ve heard that the feline leukemia vaccine is the one most likely to cause those cancers. But it is the first time I’ve seen a firsthand account of the tragic results (and the hideousness of an open tumor that continues to grow and will kill the cat before too long).
Hozart’s caretakers thought they were doing the right thing. Their vet recommended a series of vaccines, and they wanted their beloved kitty to be safe from deadly diseases. But they’re not cat nerds like me, so they had no idea about the controversy behind vaccines and the American Association of Feline Practitioners’ 2006 vaccination guidelines, which were designed to keep cats from getting unnecessary shots. The association recommended that vets give only vaccinations that are indicated by a cat’s lifestyle. For example, an indoor-outdoor cat probably should be vaccinated regularly against feline leukemia — but for an indoor-only cat like Hozart, there was just no need for it.
I’ve known about the dangers of overvaccination since the late 1990s, when I read Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Richard Pitcairn and Susan Hubble Pitcairn. But it wasn’t until the AAFP’s vaccine guidelines came out that I got the courage to talk to my most awesome vet, Doctor Sarah, about the subject. I was surprised to learn that not only had she been following the development of the guidelines, but she agreed with all of them. We discussed my cats’ lifestyles and came up with a vaccine regimen that would provide the most protection and the least risk.
My vet also followed the recommendation for injecting different vaccines in different parts of the body (left shoulder, right shoulder, left hip, right hip) so that if a cat did get a vaccine-associated sarcoma, not only would it be clear which vaccine was the culprit but the leg could be amputated to save the cat’s life.
When I moved to Half-Past-Nowhere in 2008, I had to find a new vet. Fortunately, I found one who agreed with the conservative vaccine schedule, but alas, he hadn’t gotten the memo about giving the shots in different locations. He gave all shots at the shoulder blades. I never said anything about it, and I still made sure my cats got their rabies and FVRCP shots on the proper schedule (they didn’t need leukemia shots because they were indoor-only cats).
Honestly, I would have preferred to stop vaccinating my eldest cat. I was concerned about taxing her immune system with vaccines that she almost certainly didn’t need at that point, but once again I didn’t discuss that with my vet — this time because my inner idiot kept saying, "Hey, I’m a well-regarded cat blogger who’s helped people take the best possible care of their cats for almost 10 years, and what happens if Someone Finds Out that I’m ‘neglecting my cats’ by not getting them their shots?"
My failure to discuss limiting or eliminating vaccinations has left me feeling some guilt about Dahlia’s death. Although her cancer wasn’t a sarcoma, I wonder whether the vaccinations she got somehow led to the development of the lymphoma that killed her.
I’m not pissed off at my vet; I’m pissed off at myself. I should have known better. It’s not like the guy was an arrogant jackass who would have waved his finger at me and accused me of being a bad cat caretaker. He was a kind and caring guy who always had time to listen to me and answer my geeky cat questions, and he probably would have been happy to discuss this subject. That discussion might even have inspired him to do some research on the subject and change his mind about it.
The vet I’ve begun working with here in my new hometown is a fan of a very conservative vaccination protocol, including drastically reducing vaccination frequency for senior cats. I plan to follow that protocol because, well, that’s what I’ve wanted to do all along.
Look, I’m not some freakin’ "Anti-Vax Barbie" who thinks no creature should get any shots, ever. Vaccinations save lives. But I do believe it’s your right to discuss your cat’s vaccinations and it’s your responsibility to be a well-informed client in order to ensure that your cat gets the lifestyle-appropriate care (and vaccinations). Don’t be afraid to express your concerns and advocate for what you believe. Maybe if you do, you won’t have to experience the guilt I feel because I didn’t.