POMONA, Calif. - 02/22/2011 -- A statewide fight to protect beloved pets has become a personal cause at Western University of Health Sciences.
Second-year College of Veterinary Medicine student Lisa Lippman was not able to get her dog, Max, licensed in California when she moved from the East Coast because he needed proof of rabies vaccine.
A vaccine needs the immune system to react to it in order to work, but Max has limited immune function because of the medication he's on to suppress an autoimmune disease, Lippman said.
"A vaccine would stimulate an immune system that has already gone out of control," she said. "He's already protected, from all the previous rabies vaccines I've given him over the years. It's a sad situation. I don't want to potentially risk my dog's life for a vaccine for a disease he's already protected from."
California dog owners are required to have their pet vaccinated against rabies at four months of age or older. But state law doesn't take into consideration potential health risks for some dogs with immune deficiencies. For these dogs, a rabies vaccination could be fatal.
"It essentially could be a life-or-death situation for these animals," Lippman said.
Lippman's research into the issue led her to a bill by Assemblyman Curt Hagman that would exempt from the vaccination requirement any dog whose life would be endangered due to disease or other considerations, as determined by a licensed veterinarian on an annual basis. The bill was not approved in 2010, but Hagman recently reintroduced "Molly's Bill," AB 258, for the 2011 legislative session.
Hagman recently told supporters that he expects the bill to be approved this time around. He has brought together co-authors from both sides of the aisle, and a true grassroots effort has developed in support of the legislation.
"I believe this benefits public health and public safety," Hagman said. "Veterinarians will decide what's reasonable for the health of the dog."
The bill is named for a Chino Hills dog named Molly, an English Springer Spaniel owned by Sam and Cecilia Gadd that contracted an autoimmune disease. She had already received her first rabies vaccine, but she was denied an exemption from receiving a subsequent vaccination.
The Gadds began to contact numerous groups and other pet owners, and met a kindred spirit in Assemblyman Hagman. When the bill was killed in 2010, Hagman promised he would reintroduce it in 2011, Sam Gadd said.
"This has been a longer road than expected, but in our travels down this road, we have had the privilege of meeting many wonderful pet owners who have relayed to us that they are in the same predicament, and wanting to know what they can do to help," he said.
"After working on this bill for more than 18 months, we understand it is no longer about Molly, or about family pets in our local community," Gadd said. "There are so many responsible pet owners all over California who need the laws on their side to help save their best friends from pointless rabies vaccinations. We are not asking Sacramento to jeopardize the public's health and safety. It's about being responsible."
Lippman is helping the cause by starting an online petition in support of Molly's Bill at www.change.org. Should the bill pass, the number of medical exemptions that would be approved by veterinarians on a case-by-case basis would likely be a small number, Lippman said.
"Rabies is a serious and lethal health threat," she said. "This doesn't change the law; it just provides an exemption for veterinarians to do their job.
Lippman's involvement in Molly's Bill is becoming part of the College of Veterinary Medicine's (CVM) Veterinarian Issues curriculum, where students learn the importance and value of getting involved in legislation that affects the profession.
A veterinarian faces a dilemma if the law requires administration of the rabies vaccine but their medical knowledge informs them that it may harm the animal, said Gini Barrett, CVM Associate Professor, Biomedical Ethics and Public Policy.
"It's good for the profession to clean up this legal technicality, and there are both human and humane reasons to clear it up so that everyone can do what is common sense," Barrett said.
CVM students will study the bill and write an opinion letter on the issue.
"The whole purpose of having a Veterinary Issues course is to encourage veterinarians to be more politically and civically engaged," Barrett said. "Here's Lisa, a second-year student, already doing a sophisticated level of activism. It gives the entire student body of our college the opportunity to follow something that is meaningful to them as veterinary students and as her colleague through the political process. We have this wonderful educational laboratory happening."
Veterinarians are trusted by their clients, but often are invisible to opinion leaders and policy makers, Barrett said. As a result, decisions made are often not in their best interest.
"It's important for veterinarians to be recognized for their skills and contributions. To do that, you have to come out of your cave and let people hear from you, to tell them why you're valuable," Barrett said. "We want a generation of veterinarians that will talk to each other and solve problems within the profession, and educate the public about what the profession is and what they do."
Click here to view the online petition.