“Why vaccinate wildlife?”
This is a question we hear a lot, and it’s fair enough. After all, animals don’t get vaccines in the wild.
We like to put it this way: imagine a pandemic that is nearly 100% fatal and is as contagious as the common cold. Imagine it is contagious for about a week before the person has symptoms.
Now imagine that dozens of people from all over the world, most of whom have weakened immune systems due to stress and injury, are together in one place.
If there was a safe and effective vaccine, wouldn’t you want everyone there to have it?
That’s the situation we deal with in wildlife. Although we vaccinate for many different diseases, the most important vaccine our patients receive is for canine distemper. Canine distemper is extremely common in skunks, foxes, and raccoons in East Tennessee and is horrific for every animal that gets it.
Distemper usually starts with cold-like symptoms but eventually ravages the central nervous system, causing paralysis, panic, blindness, seizures, difficulty swallowing, and a slow, agonizing death. It is effectively completely untreatable in wildlife once symptoms start, because the extreme few that survive it are contagious for months and have permanent, painful disabilities as a result.
We have had many patients arrive with distemper that wasn’t identified— or didn’t have full symptoms— until a day or two after intake. That means that even when screening our patients carefully, a few animals come to us while actively highly contagious.
While we take many precautions to prevent the spread of disease and don’t use vaccines as a substitute for hand-washing, quarantine, and common sense, something as simple as stepping in a spot where an infected animal peed and then walking into another pen can spread distemper. We believe that vaccines are an important part of disease prevention for when other steps might fail.
While canine distemper is the deadliest and most contagious virus we prevent through immunizations, it isn’t the only one. All of our patients are also vaccinated against rabies, canine parvovirus, and panleukopenia. We’re proud to say that we have not had a single animal acquire any contagious illness while in our care since we adopted our current, strict, multidose vaccine regimen in fall of 2019.
We’ve heard a lot of concerns about the safety of vaccines for wildlife, but we have to date never seen a serious adverse reaction. For skunks, mink, grey foxes, and other species that can’t handle live canine vaccines, we use specialized inactivated vaccines that confer immunity to disease without any risk that the animal might get sick from the vaccine itself. The worst reactions we’ve seen have been low fevers and a day or two of loose stool.
There’s another reason for our adherence to our vaccine schedule. We adhere to the One Health view shared by the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization: that our health, as humans, depends on the wellness of the world around us and the health of the wild neighbors who share our planet. We believe it is our duty as rehabilitators to send our “graduates” into the natural world healthy and equipped to manage the diseases that can destroy wildlife, pets, livestock, and people. We all share a world with wildlife, and we want it to be a healthy one.