The Pros, Cons and Politics of Pre-Vaccination Examinations for Pets

Patty Khuly
Patty Khuly

Getting a vaccine? Then it’s best to be extra-sure you’re healthy. Why? Because, for best results, vaccines require our immune system’s finely-tuned machinery to work just right. But also because a sick person -- or a pet as well -- is generally considered more susceptible to an adverse vaccine reaction.

This latter point explains why a complete physical examination should ideally precede any vaccine for your pet. It’s a simple insurance policy that helps keep the truly ill from a potential disaster. And in Oregon, it's is a legal requirement.

But what happens if you can’t afford the exam?

If you know for sure that you need to protect your seemingly healthy puppy from distemper and parvo with a $30 shot but can’t make it happen because a $50 initial exam fee is standing in your way, that can be tough. It may mean you'd need to wait a couple more paycheck cycles (if you’re lucky enough to have a job) before your pet’s most fundamental needs can get met.

That is one of questions that opponents this Oregon law are shouting about.  Consumer advocates point out that far more animals die of diseases that could be prevented by vaccines than they do of vaccine reactions. Why stand in the way of a basic vaccine based on some blue-sky technicality, they ask?

The Oregonian public complained so loudly about this law, the Oregon Veterinary Medical Examining Board (the state’s governing veterinary board) responded to their outrage by offering an amendment to the rule: veterinarians could waive an exam at their discretion so the animal could at least just get its shots, if nothing else.

But veterinarians weren’t happy. In fact, so many veterinarians expressed their discontent over the exception that the board ultimately felt compelled to backpedal on the proposed amendment.

So for now, at least, pre-vaccination exams are in play. Vaccines in the absence of the physical are still a no-no in Oregon. But have we heard the last word?

Well, no. That is, not until you’ve heard mine, of course.

If you’ve followed my writing for any length of time you might already know how I feel on the subject of the almighty “complete physical examination.” It’s something of a religion for me, an obsession with the practical fundamentals of veterinary medicine that I believe everyone should follow. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to get behind any law that would put up barriers to basic care and universal vaccination.

Vaccines are fundamental. I’ve donated my time on many occasions offering free vaccines to needy pets –– no pre-vaccination examination required. In fact, I helped organize a drive-thru-shot campaign when distemper raged here in Miami.

Sure, I did my best to ensure no pet was ill before vaccination but I by no means had the resources to perform a full physical. Why not? Because to require an examination means I wouldn’t have had the time to vaccinate as many as I might otherwise.

But in defense of my colleagues who oppose freer access to vaccination, you should understand that most veterinarians are ultimately on the side of pet safety and high veterinary standards on this one.

Those disgruntled, obstructive Oregonian docs who opposed the exam waiver? They did so primarily because they believe that to offer anything less than the best care not only hurts their patients but demeans the modern practice of veterinary medicine along the way.

“To require anything less than a full physical,” they say, “would be to undermine the importance of regular veterinary care.”

But –– truth be told –– money is part of what is at issue. Most of us would like to see all pet owners pony up for pets’ needs and provide more than the most bare bones care for their pets -- whether they can afford it or not.

Unfortunately, however, this economy has ushered battlefield rules into routine veterinary practice. After all, if our clients can’t pay for the exam fee, what’s the alternative? No vaccines? Like it or not, that’s not best for anyone involved –– ultra-idealistic, highest-quality veterinarians included.

So now that you see the pros, cons, pitfalls and challenges inherent to this right-to-care vs. best-practices issue. You can probably see how things in Oregon got so politically fraught.

Lucky for me I don’t live there. Otherwise, a post like this one might’ve just earned me the scorn of a bunch of otherwise like-minded colleagues.

As my friend Dr. Marty Becker wrote in a recent letter to me, I have a way of putting “burrs under saddles.” Which is completely flattering –– that is, as long as the resulting chafe is ultimately motivational. And on this issue, that means I do hope Oregon will have the courage to revisit this regulation.

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