By HENRY OWINO (Senior Science Correspondent)

Dog vaccinations play a critical role in protecting your dog from many dangerous and even fatal diseases, scientifically known as zoonotic diseases.

While state law requires all dogs are vaccinated for rabies, there are a number of other vaccinations that can protect your dog from serious diseases that are easily preventable.

Since the cost of treating the deadly rabies disease remains way out of reach for many in Kenya, the need for scaling up of cheaper preventive measures such as vaccination is crucial.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Sate agency Zoonotic Disease Unit, the viral disease claims a minimum 2,000 lives in Kenya every year. Transmitted primarily by domestic animals, mainly dogs, but also cats, donkeys and other warm-blooded mammals, nearly half the fatalities from rabies are children under 15.

For this reasons, Nairobi County Government in collaboration with TNR Trust-Kenya and Kenya Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (KSPCA) recently held a two-day (15-16 June,2019)Free Rabies Vaccination Clinic for Dogs and Cats in Kibra Constituency, Nairobi County.

Residents lining up with their dogs for rabies vaccination in Kibra Constituency, Nairobi County

The free rabies vaccination clinic attracted hundreds of pet owners from all walks of life within Nairobi County. Resident from high class, middle class and low income estates turned up for the veterinary science exercise.

According to Dr Kenneth Wameyo, Veterinary Team Leader, the two days free vaccination exercise was also meant to create Animal Welfare Awareness concerning care, diseases, dangers and benefits of pets. Apart from vaccination, the team of veterinary experts also Sterilized and Dewormed the pets.

Hundreds of Nairobi residents took the advantage of this opportunity to protect themselves and their pets against rabies. A total 858 pets were vaccinated thus 569 dogs and 289 cats. Two rabbits and a guinea pig were also vaccinated. Again 118 pets both male and female were spayed/neutered (sterilized) to check on reproduction rate.

Dr Wameyo said the objective was to reduce rabies risk and minimize population of stray dogs and cats in Nairobi County. Adding that best way to eliminate rabies is mass vaccination of dogs especially in low income areas where residents cannot afford cost or are just ignorant about it.

“People keep pets for various reasons but most commonly known are for accompaniment, security, for fun, physical attractiveness and attachment the pets bring into their lives,” Dr Wameyo explained.

Dr Kenneth Wameyo, Veterinary Team Leader cautions against zoonotic diseases in Nairobi County

The Veterinary Medicine Doctor however, said usual family perception of the pets is that it belongs to children or wives. So husbands are always less concerned about pets’ welfare hence making children most vulnerable to pets’ diseases.

“We love our pets. But sometimes they make us sick literally. In fact, all sorts of animals including dogs, cats, and farm animals can spread illness to human beings, scientifically known as zoonotic diseases. Bites and scratches from dogs and cats can transmit germs and this can cause serious infection,” Dr Wameyo cautioned.

“For example, dogs and cats are very friendly pets but if they are not well taken care of, could be infested with fleas, ticks causing diseases like Nairobi bleeding disease, ticks fever, ticks typhoid among others infecting children un-noticed,” Dr Wameyo clarified.

Other common zoonotic diseases in cats that needs regular deworming include; Toxoplasmosis, Ringworm, Salmonellosis, Campylobacter infection, Giardia, Cryptosporidium infection, Roundworms and Hookworms.

According to Dr Wameyo, countries have different ages and stages for vaccination depending on the disease prevalent. In East Africa region, vaccination starts at age 6-12 weeks while rabies vaccination is at 12 weeks.

“Vaccinations can begin with puppies at 6 weeks of age. Then, revaccinate them every 3-4 weeks. Continue this until the puppies reach 14-16 weeks of age. You can then simply give puppies annual shots,” expounded, Dr Wameyo, a veterinarian from World Animal Protection Association.

Veterinary officer administers rabies vaccination to a dog

According to Ms Amy Rapp, founder of the animal welfare organization, TNR Trust and a certified dog trainer in Nairobi, the purpose of puppy vaccines and dog vaccines including cats is to mildly stimulate the immune system by having it recognize the antigens present.

“This way, if a dog becomes exposed to the real disease, its immune system will recognize it, and therefore be prepared to fight it off, or at the least reduce its effects,” Ms Rapp disclosed.

The TNR Trust Nairobi aims to work very closely with Kenya Veterinary Association (KVA) to eradicate rabies by taking a three-pronged approach.

On the one hand, they have raised private funds to construct a fully equipped mobile clinic and hire a qualified Kenyan vet who will travel around rural areas and towns, vaccinating dogs and feral cats.

Additionally, TNR Trust Nairobi (which stands for ‘track, neuter and release’) will also neuter stray animals as a means of humanely reducing the dog and cat populations.

Further, TRN Trust Nairobi is conducting an educational campaign aimed at reaching children in age bracket (5-15) statistically seen as most vulnerable. They are as well trained on caring for the pets.

“We were recently in Karura Forest with school children who we spoke to about rabies as well as the value of neutering dogs, since most bites come from domestic animals,” Ms Rapp said.

“Once infected, one needs to quickly wash his hands with soap and water, and then go for the post-exposure treatment,” Ms Rapp advised. Adding, estimated cost of rabies shot in Kenya is KSh10, 000.

“We aim to vaccinate as well as neuter (sterilize) dogs and cats as the most efficient and cost effective means of eliminating rabies. Otherwise, (post-exposure) treatment is not accessible to many Kenyans,” Ms Rapp cautioned.

Remember it is caused mainly by a bite or scratch from an infected animal, the rabies virus enters as saliva through an open wound. It then spreads through the blood stream causing inflammation of the brain and spinal cord which is fatal.

Disease prevention is probably the most obvious and the most important reason for dog vaccinations. There are a variety of vaccinations you can give your animal in order to decrease the chances of illness or eliminate them altogether.

“It’s especially important that you begin the vaccination cycle when your dogs are very young. The younger your animal, the more at risk it is for serious diseases. This is because your dog’s immune system hasn’t yet fully formed and developed, so any extra help it has in fighting off disease, the better,” Ms Rapp asserted.

The vaccination cycle works to build up immunity over time to certain diseases. These vaccinations encourage your pet’s immune system to create additional antibodies, which will fight off anything that carries the disease.

It’s crucial that, in order for your pet to get full immunity from these dangerous and life-threatening diseases, you complete the entire vaccination series or cycle.

A cat owner holds his cat as it gets rabies vaccination

In general, your puppy will get its last vaccination in a series when it’s about 4 months old, and you would need to come back every 3 or 4 weeks for another vaccination in the cycle. Point to take home, ensure you have the time to vaccinate your animal before you decide to adopt one.

The Zoonotic Disease Unit presented a strategy paper for the elimination of rabies through mass dog vaccination. In 2014, the Kenya Government joined the global anti-rabies campaign dubbed: “Zero Human Rabies Deaths by 2030”.

It was implemented as a pilot project in six counties, namely Siaya, Homa-Bay, Kisumu, Kitui, Machakos and Makueni.

The most successful of the 6 has been in Makueni County, where the Government and KVA have partnered with several international animal welfare and human health organizations to both vaccinate thousands of dogs and raise public awareness.

Dr Wameyo indicated the government’s campaign has slowed due to shortage of resources

“But given that reality, one reason Makueni County has been relatively successful in eliminating rabies is its decision to enlist support of private sector organizations, like World Animal Protection (WAP),” Dr Wameyo revealed.

The benefits of vaccinations far outweigh any risks. Adverse reactions to dog vaccines are rare. However, as with any medication or immunization protocol, puppy vaccinations and dog vaccinations can cause some side effects. It is recommended that you have your puppy or dog vaccinated at a time when you can monitor them after the vaccination.