Sunday, July 31, 2016

Taking on the city: One way to get rabies exemptions for sick dogs

EDIT: This blog post was originally published in 2010. We hope this information is helpful to dog owners with questions about rabies exemptions for their dogs.


Several years ago, shortly after getting her vaccinations at a boarding kennel, our pit bull Sally experienced an immuno-collapse that sucked the life out of her and scared the hec out of us. Our once outrageously vivacious pit bull melted into a lethargic lump of swollen glands who could barely raise her head. She developed mast cell cancer soon after. Talk about owner guilt. Although she slowly recovered and has been boosted greatly with diet and holistic care, we decided to stop giving our sick girl her vaccines. None. Our vet fully supports our decision, although we are, technically, breaking the law.

While we need to keep our pet population healthy with standard immunizations, the question has come up: How much is too much? Christie Keith reported on the growing awareness of the downfalls of over vaccinating dogs recently in the SFGate. More and more dog owners are willing to curb some or all of their dog's vaccines - for chronically sick dogs especially - but the decision to stop rabies vaccines makes outlaws out of us in places where rabies renewal is mandated by law.

Solving this conundrum has to involve amending our animal laws to include exceptions, which is a tall order. This is why we were so impressed when one of our longtime friends - Susi Allen of Monterey - took on her city in order to save her sick dog from a potentially damaging requirement.

Susi's dog Bunny (above) was diagnosed with chronic colitis shortly after being adopted from an east bay shelter. Treating this uncomfortable disorder - which is an inflammation of the large intestine - can involve an exhausting search for solutions with frustrating set backs as the condition cycles through repeat flare ups. Susi found help with nutritional therapy, but she and her veterinarian both felt that a rabies vaccine would exacerbate Bunny's symptoms and make her sick all over again, so Susi decided to skip the shot when she was due. The problem was, Bunny's vet was powerless to help Susi sidestep the law that mandates rabies renewal for all dogs in her city. That's when this pit bull mama got busy. She was kind enough to outline her adventures with local legislation with us ...

"I contacted Dr. Ila Davis, Supervising Veterinarian for Monterey County, to ask about obtaining a medical exemption from the rabies vaccine. Dr. Davis was very sympathetic, but said a rabies titer would not be accepted in lieu of a vaccine shot. So I contacted the City of Monterey Animal Control Officer, Cathi Cristobal, and explained the situation. Not only did she completely understand the situation, she said she would accept a letter from my vet indicating a vaccine could be detrimental to Bunny’s health in lieu of a current rabies certificate and issue Bunny a one year dog license.

About a month prior to the dog license renewal, Bunny was given a rabies titer, which resulted in a 1:95 reading. The Centers for Disease Control considers a result of 1:5 to be adequate in humans. This was a 50 lb. dog with a 1:95! My vet wrote a letter attesting to Bunny’s health and requesting exemption from any further rabies vaccines.

I took a copy of the letter, the titer results and my dog license renewal notice to the city Finance Department and was told they would not issue the $9.00 dog license without the rabies certificate. There was nothing AC Officer Cristobal could do. At this point I decided my only option was to PANIC! I had to either have my dog injected with a vaccine that could potentially exacerbate her already severe medical condition (or potentially kill her), OR I could not license her and run the risk of having her confiscated under city ordinance for having an unlicensed, unvaccinated dog.

Officer Cristobal suggested I appear before the City Council, requesting an exemption to the city ordinance requiring rabies vaccines. I couldn’t do it because then I’m calling attention to the fact that I have an unlicensed dog and am violating the current city ordinance. And did I mention Bunny is a pit bull?"

Susi red flagged an email to Gary Tiscornia, Executive Director of the SPCA for Monterey County, asking for advice. She said, "He responded with several suggestions, one of which Dr. Carol Iida, the SPCA vet suggested: contact the state vet, Dr. Ben Sun. Amanda Mouisset, the Animal Behaviorist at the SPCA (and my supervisor), mentioned legislation she recently heard about which would allow an exemption from the rabies vaccine for sick animals: AB2000. After reseaching AB2000, I contacted Dr. W. Jean Dodds (Rabies Challenge Fund). Dr. Dodds was sympathetic but told me that even dogs with terminal cancer were not exempt from the vaccine. Her website states it’s possible to obtain a waiver from the vaccine, although they are often not permitted regardless of the justification. Dr. Dodds provided me with additional research material but not a lot of hope.

I contacted Dr. Ben Sun, the State Public Health Veterinarian, to explain my situation and ask, at Dr. Iida’s suggestion, how he felt AB2000 would be implemented if passed. I also asked about the rabies vaccine itself, which the manufacturers state should only be administered to healthy animals: what conditions or symptoms need to be present to constitute a legally un-healthy animal to which the rabies vaccine should not be given? I had read some of Dr. Sun’s work and knew he didn’t hold titer results in high regard.

Dr. Sun responded quickly and provided a lot of interesting, thought-provoking information. He said he was not aware of a list of diseases or conditions that would be a contraindication to rabies vaccine. There’s that Catch 22 again: the manufacturers of the vaccines state it must only be administered to healthy animals, BUT there is no method of defining a legal unhealthy, and thus, exempt, animal.

After a few more emails, Dr. Sun told me there were several cities/counties in the state that have exemption ordinances. What? Really? He gave me the list and I contacted AC Officer Cristobal, who had now announced her impending retirement. I volunteered to collect the information if she thought it would help. Within a day, I dropped off a large package of information for her at the Monterey PD, containing each localities’ ordinance highlighted and a suggestion that the exempted dog not be confined to the owner’s property, but allowed in public under constant restraint (a leash).

Officer Cristobal sent me an email stating Deputy Chief Phil Penko was drafting an ordinance for presentation to the City Council. A few days later she sent me a copy of the draft. It would be heard at the May 4th meeting, the day after Officer Cristobal retires. I attended the City Council meeting and the exemption ordinance was a consent item. The Mayor asked if any of the council members objected to any of the consent items, and no one objected to the proposed ordinance….so then it needed to be heard again at the next council meeting. I attended that one also on May 18th. Again, nobody objected and it passed! It passed. I still am in shock….it passed!

I have an email from Deputy Chief Penko stating Bunny is covered under the new ordinance and am awaiting a letter from the Police Chief. I carry a copy of the ordinance, the email from DC Penko, the letter from my vet and the titer results with me whenever I walk Bunny. There are duplicate copies in the glove box of the car. ..."

Shortly after writing her experience, Susi's hard work paid off .. She wrote again to say, "IT'S ON THE BOOKS! The City of Monterey Code includes the Rabies Exemption!! Sec 6-13 has been amended to include the exemption language. The new ordinance went into effect 6/18/10. I'm still waiting for a letter from the Chief of Police giving me the authorization to allow me to pay the dog license.....but hey, it's only been a month. It'll happen....!"

We have to salute Bunny for inspiring her diehard owner to step up and champion for sick dogs in her city. Rock on Susi! Monterey City - you got it right, and you didn't wait to see what Sacramento was going to do with AB2000 (below) before you changed your law. BRAVO.

The state of California is considering AB2000, a bill that would allow for an exemption of a rabies license with a veterinarian's permission. The facebook page of the Rabies Challenge Fund is posting updates.


pibble said...

Excellent food for thought for anyone with an immuno-compromised dog, and something a lot of vets don't necessarily discuss with their clients.

One of my dogs had osteosarcoma three years ago, and under the advice of his oncologist, we only have him vaccinated against rabies - absolutely no live vaccinations for him at all. This is very difficult for me, volunteering at a shelter, because I can bring home a variety of potentially deadly bugs to the little guy.

So beginning this year (as his vax have "expired" in 2010), we'll start running titers to see what his levels of protection are. If the titers start to get low, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Anonymous said...

WOW!!!!! Thank you for documenting this. Yes, we need to keep our pets healthy... but like people, one size does not fit all. Dogs are as individual as people when it comes to their biology. Their needs just as unique.

I think one thing to highlight in this journey was that, while panicked and worried, Ms. Allen documented and reached out patiently and professionally to all her contacts.

Congratulations again on the success! I hope we can emulate it in other parts of the country.

Richmond, Va

Mia said...

That's great!1 So glad Susi stood her ground for poor Bunny!!!

Anonymous said...

I have a GSD who after her last rabies vaccine several years ago, started painfully shedding her nails leaving only the raw, exposed quicks. The diagnosis was an autoimmune disease perhaps brought on by one too many vaccines.

I want to thank everyone who is working hard to reduce the numbers of vaccines we give our dogs. There is a way to do this safely for everyone.

Luisa said...

[stands, applauds for Susi and Bunny]

My county has an exemption ordinance, but with certain provisions [dog can't leave owner's premises, etc.].

My border collie Piper is in sheepdog heaven now, but when she was 13 or 14 and her license + rabies shot were due for renewal I went to our vet, got a letter stating that a rabies vac for Pipe was 1) unnecessary and 2) not good for the old dog's health, and I took the letter down to the city's pay-bills-here place and they said, "Fine with us, here's her license" and that was that.

Yes, I love my little town.

I lost my first pit bull [mix] -- my heart dog -- to Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia when he was 7. He was neutered young and vaccinated [for everything under the sun] regularly, because I was totally ignorant back then [as opposed to just basically ig'nant now] and thought all responsible owners got their dogs "fixed" early and pumped full of vaccines each year. Dunno if I'll ever forgive myself -- but my dogs now get their first year's worth of vacs, the ones my holistic vet says they need, and after that nuthin but rabies every three years. Their titers look great. And Smoke still has his balls.

steph gray said...

Susi, congratulations on winning a hard fought battle. You have worked hard to save not only your bully baby, but all of our bully babies by paving the way for change. Our heartfelt thanks!

Jan Rasmusen said...

Congratulations on a great job! I spend my life alerting people about the possible dangers of the rabies vaccine -- actually all vaccines. Learn more about vaccinating more safely at and I actively campaigned first AGAINST AB2000 (when it had a quarantine clause) and then FOR it (once the clause was removed). We're waiting now for the Senate Committee's decision.

I recently organized the Safer Pet Vacciantion Seminar benefiting the Rabies Challenge Fund and featuring presentations from Drs. Jean Dodds & Ron Schultz. There's a video that will be available soon. All proceeds beneift the Fund.

Donna said...

Thank you for all your contributions and common sense Jan!

topscratch said...

Great blog! Yet another perfect example about how one person really can make a significant difference in our communities!

Diane said...

Kudos to Susi for your perseverance and advocacy!

My 3 year-old girl has a very similar health profile to Bunny. We used traditional and holistic medicine to get her healthy, and now maintain her health by nutritional means only. She has not had any vaccines since I adopted her from the shelter two years ago, and my vet, a highly regarded local vet who largely practices traditional Western medicine, has strongly advised against vaccinating further.

Readers in Oakland may be interested to know that the city will waive the vaccination requirement and renew your license with a letter from your vet stating that the dog should not be vaccinated.

It seems they are not interested in TITR results, however, so if the dog bites someone I believe they will be treated the same as any other unvaccinated dog.

The biggest challenge I face with not vaccinating is it severely limits boarding options. With an unvaccinated, dog-selective dog, it is not easy. I wonder what others do in this situation.

Mary Wildt said...

3 weeks ago, I almost lost my beloved dog to Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia. The vets were stumped by the cause but felt they had to consider that it was the vaccines they administered 30 days earlier. They said when he is due again for his vacs, they will work with me to ensure he is exempt as much as possible from having to take them. I live in St Louis and my dog is 12 yrs old. It was heartbreaking to watch him suffer.

PBOforlife said...

Great job, Susi! I live in Gresham, Oregon (Multnomah County). Our pitbull, Jessie, has had mast cell cancer and our vet was the one who informed us that we can now license her without vaccinations. Thank goodness, one less thing to stress about. As far as boarding, we can't do that either. Although we luck out as we have a neighbor girl who loves our dogs and will house-sit. said...

The most common method of distemper vaccination in dogs is injection with a modified live virus vaccine. Often this is given as a combination vaccine, an injectable vaccine that includes protection against other common canine diseases, such as parvo and adenovirus, along with the distemper vaccine. Other types of distemper vaccines available include killed virus based vaccine, which is rarely used.
Thanks to the wide availability and acceptance of effective vaccines, distemper has practically been eliminated from the dog world.