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Reader Email: Was It a Vaccine Reaction? Heart Disease in Cats, How To Be a Vet


Q: In November, my little dog, Beau, hurt his leg. I took him to the veterinarian for help and for grooming. While I was waiting in the exam room, I saw a promotion for a vaccine that would prevent my dog from getting sick after licking wild animal pee. We live in the country with all sorts of wildlife, and Beau played in the woods, so I thought this would be a good idea.

Three months later, my Beau was dead. I feel like I should have been advised about the danger of this vaccine. The vet gave Beau Benadryl while administering the vaccine to prevent a bad reaction. Well, shortly after Beau got the vaccine, his own immune system began to attack and he was dead in a few months. Clearly, if Beau had not been given this vaccine, he wouldn’t have died. Don’t you think you should warn people about this? — J.W., Inman, SC

A: What happened is awful and I’m sorry for your loss. However, your assumption about the vaccine may not be valid.

“Based on your description, the vaccine was for leptospirosis,” says Dr. Mark Russak, president of the American Animal Hospital Association. “While I don’t know what happened to your dog, I do know that the Benadryl given at the time of the vaccine is to prevent an immediate anaphylactic (allergic) response, or pain and/or swelling at the injection site. Benadryl is not administered to prevent an onset of an auto-immune disease.”

While understandably you seem to see a direct cause and effect of the vaccine, Russak, of Starkville, MS, says he has not heard of such a reaction following a leptospirosis vaccine. However, he has seen dogs die of leptospirosis, which may indeed occur when dogs lap up water tainted with the urine of infected wildlife. Your dog could have been the one in the proverbial million pets who has an idiosyncratic response to a generally safe vaccine. No vaccine is completely safe, but the risk of dying from leptospirosis for dogs with Beau’s lifestyle is far greater than the risk of dying due to the vaccine.

Russak understands your anger and perhaps, feelings of guilt.

“You did nothing wrong, though,” he says. “You merely wanted to do the best you could for your companion.” Some free resources to deal with pet loss are available here, at the AAHA website.


Q: Our cat, Myra, was diagnosed with feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). She was in respiratory failure at the time of the diagnosis. Are there any clinical trials underway for cats with this condition? Is there any way we can help? — D.C., Columbus, OH

A: “Your cat has been diagnosed with the most common heart disease in cats (feline hypertrophic cardiomyopathy),” says Dr. Susan Little, feline veterinarian and past president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “Recent studies show that up to 20 percent of apparently healthy cats might have HCM. Many cats with HCM never suffer illness as a result of their heart disease. However, some cats — and Myra is sadly one of them — become ill with congestive heart failure or develop blood clots that may lead to paralysis.”

Little, of Ottawa, Canada, continues, “We don’t have any effective treatment for HCM, although there are drug therapies that may help to stabilize cats with congestive heart failure for a period of time. Much work remains to be done, not only to find effective therapies but also to find out how many cats really have it (HCM), and what factors contribute to serious disease. We already know that a genetic mutation is part of the cause in some cats.”

The Winn Feline Foundation has worked on solving HCM for many years. In fact, I set up the Ricky Fund at Winn devoted specifically to funding investigators studying this disease. L


Q: I love your column. I’m about to enter college and am thinking of becoming a veterinarian. Any advice? Also, where do you think I can go to learn more about animal behavior? — D.C., San Diego, CA

A: Chicago veterinarian Dr. Sheldon Rubin was in practice for 46 years and now speaks to veterinary students about the profession whenever asked, as a sort of veterinary ambassador. “Near your location, the closest veterinary school is at the University of California-Davis. I bet they offer an open house; most schools do,” Rubin says. “Talk to professors and students.”

“With summer break around the corner, try to find a job working with animals, particularly at a veterinary clinic,” Rubin adds. “Not only will the experience be meaningful to you, but the experience will also be very helpful in the competitive task of getting into veterinary school.”

Leadership and communication skills also impress those who determine who gets into vet school. Those same skills, of course, will serve you well in life. Grades are exceedingly important. There are typically more applicants each year than spaces available at the limited number of veterinary schools.

As for your interest in behavior, veterinarians have lots of opportunities to become boarded specialists in everything from neurology to cardiology and behavior. There are currently about 50 boarded veterinary behaviorists in the U.S. There are also certified applied animal behaviorists (Ph.D. behaviorists). The largest group is certified dog and cat behavior consultants (members of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants). I suggest you check out their website, find a consultant near you, and offer to “shadow” on behavior calls and/or teaching dog training classes. Students also sometimes work as “assistant dog trainers.”

Consider reading both popular and more scientific books on animal behavior. I’ve just published two ebooks (“Good Dog!” and “Good Cat!”), both compilations of behavior questions posed in this column, available wherever ebooks are sold.

Learn more about becoming at veterinarian on this page (and others) produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.  Also, check the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.


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Steve Dale is a certified animal behavior specialist who has been a trusted voice in the world of pet health for over 20 years. You have likely heard him on the radio, read him in print and online, and seen him speaking at events all over the world. His contributions to advancing pet wellness have earned him many an award and recognition around the globe.

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