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June 20, 2012

I’ve been meaning to write this post for many months. Now that I’ve pulled a bunch of research and seen the results of our recent USDA Freedom of Information Act request (more on that tomorrow), I suppose it’s time to tell this part of the story. I’m a smart girl. I’ve written (professionally) about veterinary medicine since the mid 1990s, and yet, I had no idea how dangerous vaccines could be for dogs like Lilly.

As we covered in our 5-part Adverse Vaccine Reaction FAQ series of blog posts, Lilly had experienced “mild” adverse vaccine reactions in the past — injection site swelling, lethargy within 12 hours.

However, because I would not classify those reactions (then or now) as anaphylasis — a dangerous, potentially deadly allergic reaction — I assumed with proper preventive strategies that Lilly would be OK.

I truly believed that anaphylasis was the ONLY serious risk. And, since that happens within minutes or hours and had never happened to Lilly, I figured we were “safe.”

In partnership with our veterinarian:

  • We gave Lilly both steroids and antihistamines in advance of every vaccine.
  • We greatly limited her vaccine load to just 3 vaccines.
  • We increased her booster intervals by several years.
  • We NEVER gave her more than one vaccine at a time.

And, yet, she developed meningoencephalomyelitis / meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and lining of the brain and spinal cord) after an adverse vaccine reaction to a rabies vaccine given January 23, 2012.

To my credit (if you don’t mind me saying so), I was VERY careful not to say this was vaccine induced until our board-certified veterinary neurologist ruled everything else out and said so himself.  (He teases me not to “piss anyone off” as I continue to write about this, but I think it’s important.)

Lilly — a then 7-year-old border collie — had an MRI and spinal tap. She received chemotherapy drugs to combat the inflammation. She continues to take numerous daily medications, some of which she may need for life. Her recovery is by no means over or 100% guaranteed.

Lilly is alive, but she is NOT the same dog. She has had a couple of relapses over these many months. We see her neurologist again at the end of June, and we hope then to try (for the third time) to wean her off of the steroids.

And, me … me, of all people, didn’t know this was even possible.

Granted, it’s rare — more on that tomorrow.

But it does happen to certain dogs. And, it happened to mine.

So to answer the questions I pose in the headline:

What I didn’t know?

I didn’t know that something other than localized adverse vaccine reactions or full-blown anaphylaxis was even possible.

When I didn’t know it?

My entire dog-owning, dog-loving life … but especially since I got my first very-own dog (a Dalmatian named Penelope Grace) at age 22.

So, right now, that puts me NOT knowing for about 22 years, including all the time I worked at the American Animal Hospital Association, worked at the American Humane Association, and volunteered for local animal shelters.

But, now I do know. And, now you know.

If you ever have a dog or ever hear about a dog that has even “mild” reactions to a vaccine — any vaccine — I BEG YOU to ask the veterinarian in charge to protect that dog from something worse.


As we’ve discussed earlier this week, Lilly will NEVER receive another vaccine as long as she lives (not just rabies, no vacines, none, zip, nada). Literally, her LIFE depends upon that.


About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. Wow. This is really eye opening – you never really hear about any of this in the news, and most vets don’t even seem to caution clients about the possibility.

  2. You would think that a vet would know that something so serious and life-threatening could occur. But at least other dog owners will benefit from your posts. I hope Lilly continues to get better.

    1. The Vets DO KNOW!!! But vaccinations, regardless of the health benefit for the pet, are their bread and butter! I am a technician and witnessed veterinarians ROUTINELY vaccinate pets that were in for tumor removal and suspected cancer patients!! Gotta get that last vaccine in before that pet does so they can reap their $$$$$$
      It is truly heartbreaking to watch

  3. This is such important information. I understand that veterinarians can appeal for exemptions on behalf of their patients (to the licensing authorities that handle pets) with documentation and medical history, and how very appropriate it seems in this case.

  4. I am so sorry to hear about Lily’s not being the same. I will pass this on to a friend who is active in the Sampson Fund.

  5. I definitely wouldn’t give her any more vaccines. Heck, our son almost died because of an adverse reaction to a vaccine when he was a baby. Of COURSE we’re not going to risk that again!

  6. Hi Y’all,

    We’re keeping our paws crossed for Lilly’s next appointment with the neurologist.

    Just stoppin’ to see how your week is going. Hope it’s great! Wishin’ y’all a great first summer day and a wonderful summer!

    Y’all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  7. So I’m wondering, my dog has adverse reactions to anesthesia–he’s small and he’s had to have many of his teeth pulled and has to go under for it, should I be worried about vaccines? He’s never had any reaction to medications but he’s getting older now… Thanks so much for sharing this.

    1. I honestly don’t know as much, @MyKidsEatSquid, about anesthesia in certain dogs. It’s pretty well known that sight hounds often have a tough time with anesthesia, but that’s where my insights end. You definitely want to talk to your veterinarian about it. Typically, if they do blood work right before using anesthesia and if they have someone really monitoring a dog’s vitals while “under,” then everything should be OK. The kinds of anesthesia veterinarians use now is much safer and can be reversed quickly, if necessary.

  8. You and Lilly have been through so much – too much. I never knew about this, either. I’m hoping for continued improvement. It’s sad that it had to happen.

  9. I had no idea about the seriousness of reactions either, Roxanne, and I too, consider myself a pretty smart, informed animal writer. I’ve since also written about the vaccine to prevent heart worm – also very serious and fatal reactions in some dogs.

    1. Yes, @Living Large, I heard about the issues with this new heartworm vaccine. It’s so sad for the people who’ve lost pets. I tend to be REALLY cautious about “new” vaccines. For example, everyone asks me about the rattlesnake vaccine, but I’ve corresponded by email with the guy who invented it, and he flat out told me he would NOT recommend it for a dog like Lilly who has had even “mild” trouble with other vaccines.

  10. Thank you for sharing this. I didn’t know any of this was possible either. We had a dog who had a reaction to the Lyme disease vaccine and our vet, first of all, did not believe us, and second of continued to recommend that vaccine and others!

    1. I’ll write about it tomorrow, @Brette, but I was surprised to see how often the reporting veterinarian in these cases marked HIGH as their level of confidence that the vaccine caused the dog’s illness. Still … when I first began writing about Lilly’s experience some of my (close) veterinary friends scoffed at the connection.

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