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Freedom of Information Act and Adverse Vaccine Reactions

One of the biggest questions people ask when they hear about Lilly’s unfortunate and dangerous response to her recent rabies vaccine is this: How common / rare is it?

I promise you I’m trying to get a real, documented, publishable answer to that question (among others I hope to address either individually or in an upcoming FAQ).

best dog blog, champion of my heart, cutting red tape cartoon

Take that, red tape!

Here’s the rub. In order to get information on actual, reported adverse vaccine reactions, I must file a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA is the regulatory agency for animal vaccines … not the FDA).

I believe it all goes back to pets as an outgrowth of agriculture.

The short and entirely anecdotal answer to this question is … pretty rare.

In 28 years, our family veterinarian, for example, has seen just 3 severe reactions to any vaccines:

  • A straight up allergic / anaphylaxis reaction in a toy breed dog
  • Lilly
  • A case similar to Lilly’s  (years ago) that at the time was deemed NOT vaccine caused but in retrospect likely was (She has since pulled the file, and the dog did get the exact same vaccine that Lilly did.)

I asked one of the neurology technicians about it, and she said that in all the years she has worked for our neurologist (either 7 or 9 years, I cannot remember for sure) that Lilly’s was the ONLY vaccine-induced case that she’d seen.


I’m in the process of trying to get real data via a Freedom of Information Act Request with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) of the USDA.

The rules for doing that are pretty strict, so while I really want to ask for a lot of information, I cannot because each vaccine, each maker, each data request would have to be sent separately.

In the ideal world, I’d want to know:

  • How many adverse vaccine reactions across all vaccines made by all companies over a certain period of time (1 year, 5 years)
  • How those adverse vaccine reactions are categorized (by symptoms, severity, etc.)

Instead, I currently plan to ask for the following targeted information:

  • All adverse reactions to the specific vaccine by the specific company that Lilly received (a three-year rabies)
  • If I can get it, I’ll also ask for the one-year rabies vaccine (same product, different label) by the same company.
  • If 5 years of data is too much info, then I’ll get just a single year (likely 2011).
  • I really want all reactions that fit the above criteria, but if that doesn’t work out, I’ve said I primarily want those classified as neurological adverse vaccine reactions.

So, I’ll be submitting that official Freedom of Information Act Request this week, and I’ll let you know when I know.

CAVEAT! The data I get might not be that helpful in determining true incidence rates because reporting adverse events is NOT mandatory. That means a lot of them likely go unreported.

Also! Much of the information will be redacted (blacked out) since it includes identifiable information about the people and pets involved.

One more note! As media, I don’t have to pay for research time or the first 100 pages of information, but I will have to pay copying costs beyond 100 pages. I will tell them that I’m willing to pay up to $200 for additional pages, if necessary.

Stay tuned!

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.

Jane Boursaw - April 10, 2012

Sigh… so much red tape and paperwork involved with every part of our lives. Have you heard anecdotal stories from some of your friends with pets? In a general view, does it seem like adverse reactions are happening and not being reported?

Heather - April 9, 2012

It is really sad that our government is wrapped up in all this red tape. I hope your initial query gets you the information you need and want. I feel so bad for you and Lilly that this happened.

Vera Marie Badertscher - April 9, 2012

I’m sure that the wording of the request needs to be extremely careful, because somebody’s liability lawyers are looking at it and saying–well we don’t have to give them anything but THIS because THAT wasn’t specified. Also, be prepared for a long wait. As a former Congressional employee, I would urge you to contact your local Member of Congress (House or Senate) and ask them to help expedite your request.

Alisa Bowman - April 9, 2012

It will be very interesting to find out what you learn. I will admit that your story has me scared. At the same time, for most of these diseases, the vaccine is safer than the alternative. Just scary, though.

MelF - April 7, 2012

I’ll be waiting to see why you find Roxanne since I believe that’s what caused Indy’s reaction and seizures.

MyKidsEatSquid - April 6, 2012

I will stayed tune. Until your unfortunate experience I had no idea this was even possible. As a dog owner, I’m more than interested in what you turn up. Go Roxanne!

Jennifer Margulis - April 6, 2012

Can’t wait to find out what you discover. This is very interested. Also, what Edie said shocks me, how can they use the SAME dosage on dogs that are tiny and dogs that are huge?!

    Roxanne Hawn - April 6, 2012

    Yes. Dogs of all sizes get the same vaccine dose. What’s even more interesting is that dogs get 1/3 the dose of rabies vaccine that horses get … and clearly, horses are much bigger than most dogs. Unlike many other medicines that are dosed based on weight, vaccines are typically done based on known amount required to produce protective immunity.

ruth pennebaker - April 6, 2012

Good luck with this, Roxanne. I’m just glad you and Lilly both got through the initial onslaught.

kb - April 5, 2012

I cannot believe that it is so hard for a citizen/consumer to get that info. I hope that you get a good picture from the info that you can get.

jansfunnyfarm - April 5, 2012

You sound quite determined and organized. Hope you get all you request!

Alexandra - April 5, 2012

I hope you get this information and are able to run with it.

Susan - April 5, 2012

My dog’s vet gave him a homeopathic remedy concurrently to prevent any untoward side effects and he was FINE. I recommend going to a holistic/homeopathic vet. I’d never trust any pet of mine with any other.

Susan - April 5, 2012

My dog’s vet gave him a homeopathic remedy to prevent any side effects and he was FINE. HIGHLY recommend going to a holistic/homeopathic vet. Would never go to any other.

Living Large - April 5, 2012

I’m very interested in seeing these stats, Roxanne. I hope you get what you need from your FOI request.

Edie - April 5, 2012

I didn’t realize you didn’t have access to the studies on adverse reactions to vaccination; there was a huge one published by the JAVMA in 2005 (Vol. 227, No. 7, October 1). I don’t know how to attach a pdf to this but I will send it to you via email.

merr - April 5, 2012

This is a very important project, and I could see, if you had the interest, in it becoming quite big… perhaps book or documentary.

Callie's Mom - April 5, 2012

You may not be able to get info for the year 2011. Seems that it takes a bit of time for all the reports to come in and be compiled. You may want to ask for 2010 and 2011. That way if 2011 isn’t available as of yet, you will not have to resubmit to get the 2010 data.

    Roxanne Hawn - April 5, 2012

    That’s a good point, @Callie’s Mom. If I can only get a single year, I’ll just ask for the most recent full year available. I also realized that my draft request doesn’t clarify that I’m looking mostly at dog reactions (not kitties).

Brette Sember - April 5, 2012

I will be interested to see what you learn.

Los Alamos - April 5, 2012

As I have a toy dog that seemed to be pretty ill for a day after her last rabies shot, that’s interesting about the toy dog reaction. All I hear or read is anecdotal stories about several toy dog reactions, nothing with actual data. At any rate, she’s 8, and I’ve decided that there will be no more rabies shots for her despite the fact that we are surrounded by skunks, raccoons, and other potentially rabid animals.

    Edie - April 5, 2012

    The reason that toy dogs get a more severe reaction is that — believe it or not! — they use the same size dose of vaccine on all size dogs. And yes, my 10 pound dog is now officially illegal because he has not gotten a rabies shot for years.

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