The mammoth recall of pet food that grabbed headlines over the past month after contaminated batches were linked to at least 16 pet deaths has put a new spotlight on proper handling of pet products and care issues.
But there's another area that has gotten little attention but could also pose a risk to dogs, especially those among the smaller breeds.
It involves vaccines and how often they should be given.
The next time you get that reminder in the mail to get your pet's yearly booster shots, you may want to pause and reconsider.
According to major veterinary schools and the American Animal Hospital Association, most major canine vaccines should be given once every three years -- not annually. In fact, for some smaller breeds -- pugs, Yorkies, French bulls, Maltese and Pekinese -- the yearly vaccines can lead to sometimes lethal complications.
For example, in pugs, one of the more popular breeds in the Pittsburgh area, researchers believe that boosters may trigger PDE, or Pug Dog Encephalitis, a fatal condition to which many of that breed are predisposed.
But while most vet schools and national veterinary societies endorse the three-year regimen for distemper, parvovirus, parainfluenza and adenovirus 2 vaccines, it's hard to find a local veterinarian who isn't pushing annual shots for these diseases.
An informal phone poll of more than 15 animal hospitals in the Pittsburgh area found only one, Point Breeze Animal Clinic, that was giving shots at three-year intervals.
"Are we vaccinating too much? The answer is yes, we are," says Dr. Lawrence Gerson, who runs the Point Breeze practice.
He says toxic reactions to vaccines in all breeds are well documented. "It's not just pugs; clearly in Weimaraners there are problems," he says. In addition, a Lhasa Apso died at his practice just last year.
Ohio State Veterinary School has developed a vaccine protocol especially for Weimaraners, but problems can crop up in all breeds.
Dr. Gerson says he's especially careful with dogs such as dachshunds and miniature types, and dogs under 30 pounds when giving a vaccine against leptospirosis (a bacterial illness transmitted through infected urine), which is considered a discretionary shot given to at-risk dogs. "I've had fatal reactions to vaccines in my practice, but that's not the norm," he stresses.
What is more common, he said, are side effects the dog experiences -- swelling, itching or vomiting.
He is frustrated that many of his colleagues are slow to change to three-year boosters.
"These are mainstream protocols," says Dr. Gerson. "I can't think of many dogs that need distemper more than every third year. You can make an argument for less; there's not really an argument for more."
The American Animal Hospital Association revised its guidelines in 2003 to include the three-year protocol after convening a panel of experts who studied the issue.
"We are following these guidelines in our own hospital, and I would never do that if I wasn't fully confident of them," said Dr. Thomas Carpenter, association president, who runs his own veterinary practice in Costa Mesa, Calif. "It is very, very safe."
In fact, the vaccines may protect a dog more than three years, he said, although sufficient research isn't available to confirm that yet.
Dr. Carpenter said he's not sure why more veterinary practices aren't following the three-year protocols.
"I believe with any change in protocols, there are probably early adapters, and there are probably people who are slow to adapt. All the vet schools are using the protocols, so the students are graduating with the protocols in mind. [The changes are] not going to happen overnight. We at the AAHA hope to positively influence the profession based on science [with the published protocols]."
Asked whether vet clinics are pushing annual vaccinations to keep revenue coming in, he discounted that.
"I think veterinarians are concerned about being sure that they provide the best health care, and people who are doing it annually are more worried about being sure that the patients are being protected."
Dr. Jamie Bush, a veterinary resident at Colorado State University, is studying how environmental issues such as booster vaccines can specifically affect onset of PDE, but the implications of her research go beyond the pug community.
"I do feel that [all] pugs are predisposed to problems from vaccine," says Dr. Bush, saying pugs should not be given booster shots more than once every three years.
"My personal opinion is that all dogs should have limited vaccines, and those that might be more predisposed to hyper-sensitivities especially," she says.
That would include older dogs or those with chronic disease conditions.
She says the possible side effects of boosters on the canine immune system are still not completely understood.
She's not alone in this thinking. Her university endorsed the three-year protocols in 1998, but so have many other distinguished veterinary schools. Kansas State, Texas A&M, the University of Wisconsin and, closer to home, Ohio State University and the University of Pennsylvania.
At the very least, said Dr. Gerson, a veterinarian owes it to his or her client to discuss the new protocols.
Dr. Donald Caslow, a vet who practices at the East Suburban Animal Hospital in Murrysville and is known as a progressive voice on the subject of pet care, agrees. He also has followed the three-year regimen since it was endorsed in 2003. Boosters are sometimes skipped at his practice, depending on the needs of the patient.
He says all dogs are at risk, no breed more than others.
He has had a death attributed to what he calls distemper vaccine-induced encephalitis in an animal that he believes was a dachshund. He also remembers seeing two vaccine-related deaths in 1976.
"There are other problems that vaccination can cause, such as anaphylactic reaction, hives, injection-site soreness and sterile abscess," he said, added that it may also create immunity problems, but that is still being studied.
"Veterinarians must weigh the benefit vs. the risk," he said.
He said he's been following the three-year regimen for five years and "we've never seen an animal get one of these diseases," he said. "I'm very comfortable with what we are doing; it's possible we could do even less."
One hindrance could be boarding kennels, many of which require proof of annual vaccinations before they'll accept a dog. For these issues, Dr. Caslow says he writes his clients a note.
"Most kennels will accept the three-year vaccination protocol if we write a note [saying] that we feel the dog is protected. If not, we refer them to the AAHA recommendations. Some vaccinations, such as those needed for protection against kennel cough and leptospirosis, need to be given yearly if they are to be effective."
All the professionals interviewed agree on one thing -- a yearly visit to the vet is a must, regardless of whether the pet needs a shot. It's a time when vet and owner can discuss how best to care for the animal.
"It should be the job of every veterinarian and every client to discuss what vaccines the pet may need," says Dr. Gerson. "What you don't want is for people to stop vaccinating all together, but [instead] to put together a minimal vaccine schedule [for each pet]."
Susan Banks can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1516.