7 News Investigation: Pet Threat

Air Date: 11/13/2003
Reported By: Patrick Fraser
Producer: Diana Reed
Contact: dreed@wsvn.com

Getting an annual rabies shot for our pet is something most of us don't give a second thought. Patrick Fraser investigates whether something that is supposed to help our dogs and cats is really a Pet Threat.

(WSVN) -- By the time the Forgione's walked into the rescue shelter ... the cocker spaniel had spotted them.

"He had a little plastic Santa Claus in his mouth and he looked at us and he's like, ‘Please rescue me, please save me,’ and we did," says Frank Forgione.

And for the next five years Thurston was a part of their lives.

"He was our son," says Frank. "We did everything we could for him."

Part of that care was his rabies shots.

This year, Thurston wasn't feeling well when they took him in to get the county mandated shot. He would soon be feeling worse.

"The next day he couldn't stand."

Five days after his rabies shot... Thurston was dead.

"It was so rapid, it was like watching our dog melt," says Kathy Forgione. "That's the only way to describe it."

Frank and Kathy were heartbroken, as they remembered their pet.

Then as they started learning about the potential danger of rabies shots ... they were outraged.

"I found overwhelming data that rabies shots can cause this and do cause this in animals, cats and dogs," Patrick says.

Rabies shots. By law county every cat and dog in Dade and Broward has to get one every year. We're told its done to protect the animals from getting rabies. But what we are not told according to some vets, the rabies shots are dangerous.

Dr. Arthur Malernee, Veterinarian, says "The studies have shown that not only are the vaccinations not needed every year, but, actually, these, giving these vaccines year after year has shown to be harmful."

Dr. Malernee is a veterinarian in Palm Beach County who warns rabies shots can hurt dogs and cats.

"There are studies that show some rabies vaccines given to cats are causing cancer as frequently as one vaccine in a thousand," says the vet.

It's become so risky, 33 states now only require a rabies shots every three years.

Secretly, Dr. Malernee says that's how often many vets vaccinate their own pets.

"I just couldn't live without vaccinating my own dog and then going to work every morning and telling the public they needed to vaccinate their dog," he says. "I just decided I wasn't going to do it anymore."

But, vets love animals. That's why they are in the animal business.

So why give shots that may not be necessary?

In part, because it's the law, and, critics say, it's profitable.

The studies show that when a vet stops vaccinating every year, his take-home income drops 71 percent.

For example, the actual rabies vaccine costs about .70 cents.

Miami-Dade county collects a 40 dollar tax for a rabies shot on an un-neutered animal.

By the time the vet checks the animal and tacks on his fees, the bill usually hits 80 - 100 dollars.

"Someone is making a lot of money," says Dr. Malernee.

"A lot of our revenues come from license/tag sales," says Allen Siegel spokesman for Broward Animal Control. "That is true, but it's a public health issue."

Siegel says the shots are not given to make money... rather ... to save human lives.

"Because of the threat here in Broward, we've had 25 cases in the last two and a half years of rabies," says Siegel, "and rabies is a fatal disease that humans can catch."

But you still need to be careful about getting the rabies vaccine.

"We want it to always be known that if a dog is elderly, if a dog is sick, he should not be vaccinated," offers Siegel.

In fact, on the vaccine is a warning: "Only for the vaccination of healthy dogs and cats."

It turns out Thurston was sick. The rabies shot pushed him over the edge.

But their vet never told them he did not have to get the rabies shot that day...

"I didn't know we could request a form from the State of Florida that would satisfy them that says this dog is too old or not healthy enough to have a rabies shot," says Frank Forgione.

As for Dr. Malernee, his office is in Palm Beach County, which now only requires the rabies shot every three years. And, he says, he realizes complaining about annual rabies shots will not make him popular in South Florida.

"I guess I'm a whistle blower," he says.

The Forgione's can't bring their cocker spaniel back. But, they can stop other animals from being stricken.

"We want this law changed," says Frank. "We want pet owners to be aware of the dangers in vaccinating your dog."

A pet threat many people are not aware of...