Vaccine Hesitancy Reaches the Dog World, Survey Finds · The Wildest

Skip to main content

Vaccine Hesitancy Reaches the Dog World, Survey Finds

Let’s debunk some things right now for new pet parents with questions.

by Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM
September 7, 2023
Side view of smiling blonde woman with stick playing with black German Dane pet on beach.
Danil Nevsky / Stocksy

Sometimes, the almighty internet algorithm decides you should be into something new and fills your feed with content that you don’t want. This is fine if you’re being shown deftly edited clips trying to trick you into thinking you can bake Great British Bakeoff-worthy. It’s not so great when you’re being fed misinformation. Misleading articles and headlines are made to get in your head and create doubt. Maybe lizard people do exist. Maybe the earth really is flat. Maybe my dog can get autism from a vaccine.

A recent report showed that over half of dog parents in a national survey had concerns about either the safety, efficacy, or necessity of vaccination for their pets. Thirty-seven percent of the respondents were worried that vaccines could cause “cognitive issues like canine/feline autism.” This concern likely stems from a retracted and immediately debunked 1998 study linking the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism spectrum disorder (autism) in children. To be crystal clear, there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism in children.

But doubt lingers, and some of this uncertainty has spread to the dog world. A major concern in the recent survey was that dog parents displaying vaccine hesitancy were more likely to have pets not up to date on their rabies vaccinations.

Why is rabies vaccination important?

Rabies is a terrible disease that is 100 percent fatal in animals and nearly 100 percent fatal in humans. For a long time, people in the United States haven’t had to think much about rabies beyond getting their pets vaccinated during checkups. Because of a combination of responsible pet parenting and laws requiring rabies vaccination, rabies has been almost completely eliminated from dogs in the U.S.

Working to protect dogs from rabies has paid off well. There are only one to three cases of humans infected with rabies in the U.S. per year, and most of those are from exposure to wild animals, such as bats and raccoons.

Possible Concerns About Rabies Vaccination in Dogs

You may have encountered articles raising concerns about rabies vaccines in dogs. The vast majority of these articles use fear and false correlations to create uncertainty about the safety of rabies vaccination. Because of this, veterinarians are often asked questions like:

Does rabies vaccination cause autism in dogs?

Rest assured, rabies vaccination does not cause autism in dogs. Autism spectrum disorder is not diagnosed in dogs, nor is a condition recognized by veterinary behaviorists or neurologists.

Does rabies vaccination have any negative health effects?

Vaccine reactions, including those to the rabies vaccine, are uncommon, but anything your dog is exposed to, including food, medications, vaccines, pollen, and insects, can cause an allergic reaction. Adverse events occur in only about 25 out of every 10,000 doses of rabies vaccine administered. Although rare, there have been instances of specific types of injection-site sarcomas after rabies vaccination.

A vaccine reaction can show up in many ways, including:

  • Soreness

  • Puffy face/eyes

  • Hives

  • Itchiness

  • Vomiting

  • Fever

  • Lethargy

  • Collapse

Most dogs respond well to basic medications, such as steroids and antihistamines, to treat allergic reactions, but some can need more intensive care if they have a severe reaction.

Should smaller dogs receive a smaller amount of vaccine?

It’s tempting to think that smaller dogs should receive a smaller amount of vaccine than big ones. After all, it does seem a little odd that a Chihuahua gets the same dose as a St. Bernard. Vaccines are dosed uniformly because they’re calibrated to stimulate the immune system, which requires the same amount of antigen (deactivated virus bits) no matter the size of the dog.

What are the consequences of not vaccinating for rabies?

Rabies vaccination is important enough for public health that almost every jurisdiction in the U.S. requires it as a part of having a dog. Even if it’s not required, vaccination is still in your dog’s best interest. Dogs are innately curious and will not hesitate to put a dead animal in their mouth or wrestle with an aggressive raccoon that saunters onto their property.

Vaccinating is part of being a good dog parent. While your dog will not develop autism, you should still talk to your veterinarian to make sure that your pet is not at risk for any other vaccine reactions or complications.


Dr. Bartley Harrison holding his dog

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM

Dr. Bartley Harrison, DVM is a small animal veterinarian based in North Carolina who has practiced emergency medicine since graduating from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. His primary interest areas include pain management, cardiology, and the treatment of shock.

He is a member of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society, American Veterinary Medical Association, and American Medical Writers Association. In addition to his clinical work, he writes pet health articles to help provide accurate information for both new and experienced pet parents. When he’s not working, he enjoys cooking, traveling, reading, and going on adventures with his dog.

Related articles