Veterinary teams (like many pet owners) understand pet vaccines help protect pets from the risks of potentially serious or even fatal diseases like rabies. Moreover, veterinary professionals understand the risks of pet vaccine reactions or side effects are low (0.02% to 0.5%) and far outweigh the risks of a pet becoming sick with a preventable or potentially deadly disease like distemper, parvovirus, or feline leukemia. Yet some pet owners don’t feel the same way. They’re hesitant toward pet vaccination, and according to Improve International, vaccine hesitancy has increased around the world.

Why is it growing and what can veterinarians do to address vaccine hesitancy?

“To address what many pet owners think about immunizations,” writes Dr. Angela Beal in a December 2022 article for Today’s Veterinary Business, “you first must understand the roots of their concerns.”

Here are three big reasons why pet owners are hesitant toward pet vaccinations:

Some Pet Owners Believe Pet Vaccines Are Unnecessary and Can Cause Chronic or Severe Illnesses

Veterinarians have long dealt with vaccine hesitancy and misconceptions among pet owners. Yet anti-vaccine views and misinformation about human vaccines during COVID spiraled outward to impact views of pet vaccines.

  • In March 2019, Time reported how anti-vaxxers were pushing the message that pet vaccines were unnecessary and dangerous, and made unfounded claims that pet vaccination could cause a form of canine autism. Yet as expressed by the British Veterinary Association in an article by The New York Times, “There’s currently no reliable scientific evidence to indicate autism in dogs (or its link to vaccines).”
  • A month later, The Guardian reported, “There has been a spike in people refusing to vaccinate pets against deadly diseases,” adding, “There is no such thing as autism in dogs.”
  • Two years later in March 2021, the National Library of Medicine published results from a survey that examined the impact of the human medicine anti-vaxx movement on veterinary medicine and found a positive correlation between an organized anti-vaxx movement against mandatory vaccination for children and pet vaccine hesitancy among pet owners.

Social Media Had a Particular Effect on Vaccine Hesitancy (and Continues to Have an Effect)

According to March 2021 report published by the National Library of Medicine (NLM), for example, “Messages about vaccines on social media predominantly focus on negative experiences because these are easier to visualize than the benefits of vaccines—the absence of disease. This has the result of increasing mistrust of vaccines.”

The above is not to suggest pet owners hesitant toward pet vaccines are against vaccines. It’s more a case of confusion and fear.

When opposing information is conflated in one place, the results make it difficult for pet owners to discern what information they can trust. “This is especially true,” says the NLM report, “for individuals who believe that the views they hear reflect a larger group.” Yet the central issue of trust points to how veterinarians can effectively address pet vaccine hesitancy through client education.

Vet speaking with pet owner about their dog.People Continue to Have a High Level of Trust Toward Veterinarians

Trust in banks, governments, the media, and certain businesses may be at record lows but trust remains high for veterinary professionals around the world.

  • According to a Gallup poll published by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), U.S. pet owners rated the honesty and ethical standards of veterinarians as high or very high, roughly equaling the trust rating for pharmacists and slightly ranking above physicians and dentists.
  • In a 2022 survey of Canada’s most respected occupations, veterinarians scored above engineers, police officers, and judges, and ranked just below teachers and scientists.
  • A recent UK study reported that 94% of people had high trust levels for veterinary surgeons, ranking them third just below opticians and pharmacists.

High veterinary trust, the prevalence of pet vaccine misinformation, and vaccine questions/concerns among pet owners create a timely opportunity for veterinary teams to communicate with clients and provide trusted information about pet vaccination to help solve an authentic problem—because pet owners are open to help. “Despite this apparent increase in the reluctance to vaccinate their pets,” writes the AVMA, “most pet owners are willing to discuss the issue and just want their concerns to be heard and validated.”

Recommended Communication Approaches

Acknowledging that discussions with clients about pet vaccination can be difficult conversations for veterinarians, Dr. Michael Day recommends in an interview with JAVMA News, “Veterinarians need to adopt a nonconfrontational but persuasive communication style to convey correct, science-based information in an understandable fashion.”

For practices using the client education resource ClientEd, it’s easy to provide trusted pet health information to pet owners in jargon-free language they can understand.

Containing more than 2,100 pet health handouts (including over 260 medication handouts) covering a wide range of topics and species, ClientEd is accessible to your entire veterinary team. Handouts can either be sent directly to clients through email or printed and handed to clients as hard copy. Practices with ClientEd integrated into their WebDVM Plus or Pro website can also send links to relevant pet health handouts online.

In terms of communication style, Dr. Day’s recommendations align with the pet owner perspective and vaccine hesitancy. Veterinary teams may understand pet vaccines help protect pets from the risks of potentially serious or even fatal diseases, but a danger-based approach may come off as scare tactics for some pet owners and, on their own, may not answer questions about pet vaccine safety and efficacy. An alternative approach is to identify clients who may feel this way, set up targeted communications based on data from your practice software, and reach out along these lines:

  • You may have questions/concerns about pet vaccination.
  • That’s understandable. There’s a lot of misinformation out there.
  • We’re here to answer your pet vaccination questions.

Then, follow up inquiries with answers and relevant ClientEd handouts to support your answers.

The same approach translates to your practice’s social media management. By dispelling pet vaccine misconceptions and encouraging pet owners to contact your practice for answers, you help address vaccine hesitancy, protect more pets, and position your practice as a trusted source of pet health information.

Some Pet Owners Say Vaccines Cost Too Much

A quick search on Semrush will show you how much the cost of pet vaccines is on the minds of people.

After we searched the phrase “pet vaccine,” for example, we found the following top-ranked keywords (meaning search terms that people are keying into search engines):

  • Free pet vaccinations near me
  • Low-cost pet vaccinations
  • Low-cost pet vaccinations near me

Such search terms make sense. You’ve been to the grocery store and gas pump. You know how the rising cost of living is hitting wallets, so people are naturally searching for ways to save money, and that’s the important bit connected to pet vaccines and top search terms.

The very wording of top-ranking pet vaccine search terms doesn’t point to pet owners being against pet vaccines. They’re looking for them. They want them. They just want pet vaccines that are either low cost or no cost, and this is another opportunity to reach out to clients and address vaccine hesitancy through client education and communications along these lines:

  • Many pet owners want pet vaccines but need low-cost or no-cost options.
  • If this describes you, we get that. Inflation has hit us all hard.
  • To help, we’re writing to tell you about options.

Then, tell clients about available options your practice may offer, such as programs or sliding-scale pricing to accommodate pet owners constrained by finances, or membership packages that reduce the costs of pet vaccines. For pet owners with pet insurance, you can remind them that their policy may cover pet vaccination.

In whatever capacity your practice can help or advise pet owners about low- or no-cost pet vaccination, whether referring them to organizations like ShotVet or agencies like Progressive Animal Welfare Services (PAWS), the act of reaching out and assisting pet owners with an authentic problem establishes and strengthens a connection of trust. This connection tends to have a positive outward effect such as positive online reviews (so important to client retention and growth) and helps both retain existing clients while attracting new ones.

Some Cat Owners Believe Feline Vaccines Cause Injection-Site Sarcomas

Although injection-site sarcomas are considered rare (with reports indicating they happen at a rate of about one case per 10,000 to 30,000 vaccinations), cat owners understandably still don’t like those odds. So, as with client education and communication approaches under the more general area of beliefs that pet vaccines can cause chronic or severe illnesses, it’s important to address vaccine hesitancy from a place of acknowledgment along these lines:

  • Cat owners are often concerned that vaccine injections can cause sarcomas (a broad group of cancers).
  • Although sarcomas are considered rare, we understand such concerns, just as we understand there’s misinformation floating around about injection-site sarcomas.
  • We’re here to help you sort fact from fiction to help you make the best health care decisions for your pet.

When you encourage conversations with pet owners from a place of understanding, and supply them with relevant pet health handouts that address and reinforce your advice, you accomplish three important things:

  1. You address immediate concerns connected to vaccine hesitancy.
  2. Strengthen client relationships and position your practice as a trusted and approachable source of pet health information.
  3. You arm pet owners with important takeaway information to help them remember information they may forget and counterbalance the impact of whatever pet vaccine misinformation they may encounter online.

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