The question at the heart of dog flu: why do we keep vaccinating dogs?

Some say we could do it. Others have suggested it would make us all weaker. A few dog lovers even go so far as to assert that “[now] the cure is the vaccine.” But…

The question at the heart of dog flu: why do we keep vaccinating dogs?

Some say we could do it. Others have suggested it would make us all weaker. A few dog lovers even go so far as to assert that “[now] the cure is the vaccine.” But why don’t we?

This scientific question rests, at bottom, on your belief that animals are not patients. If you believe this, then you believe that pets have the autonomy to get treatment if they believe they need it, or that they are capable of self-determination. According to this school of thought, treating a pet with a drug or a surgical procedure is akin to acting with a human patient – it’s that very treatment of ourselves that you choose. That is, to treat a pet with a drug or a surgical procedure, you need to stop acting as a human patient; you must break down your identity as a human person. And so you vaccinate your dog, treatment is complete, and the dog can be cured.

But we don’t, not yet.

Epidemiological studies comparing the conditions of healthy human and pet populations have found no difference between them. In fact, studies in Norway have found that the infection rate is about the same for pets and people.

However, there is evidence to suggest that the incidence of infection of puppies and kittens may be lower in pet populations. Other studies of this nature suggest that the reason for this may be based on improvements in hygiene and pharmaceutical practices as well as on measures taken to encourage human-animal interaction.

In fact, it has been suggested that many effective medical interventions for humans were originally aimed at pets, that are now used in humans. For example, porcine somatopoxidase inhibitors – medication that kills bacteria found in the lungs of pigs, including influenza A – were originally developed by the same science institute where rabies vaccine is now developed.

Medications containing “pig materials” have been used to treat humans for several years now.

What does this point to? It suggests that if there were a vaccine for dog flu, it could well be an effective vaccine. And vaccinations for humans are even known to exist – for pregnant women in certain regions of Africa and for those at high risk of transmission – and are known to be effective.

Not all vaccines are equally effective, however. For example, vaccines against influenza require an individual to obtain the vaccine by mouth; humans cannot get the vaccine from their pets. There is also some evidence that vaccines caused increased rates of cancer.

So, why doesn’t there already exist a vaccine for dogs?

A few reasons. First, there’s money. Last year, cost was the first reason given by pharmaceutical companies not to develop a vaccine, and economic concerns persist for pharmaceutical companies. Pet owners do pay for vaccines, so this is a complex and stressful decision. But having lost all of the arguments above, the industry point to the stated reason that there’s no evidence it would be effective.

But if there’s no evidence the vaccine would be effective, why not do it, if the costs are minimal?

It seems to have come down to a biological and cultural question. It’s an argument that is deeply rooted in our views of ourselves and how we want to be treated. Our brains are complicated machines, but we are still human, and the means by which we behave are still deeply personal. So when we work to protect our human identities from the threat of infection, in order to protect ourselves, what we are trying to do is protect our animal identity, too.

Vaccines have never been easy to make, and they are an incredibly expensive process. There is a reason why in rare situations it has been used in humans.

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