London (CNN)More pet owners are failing to vaccinate their animals, new figures show, and a UK animal charity is describing the growing problem as a "ticking time bomb" for pets.
Millions of animals are being left unprotected and vulnerable to potentially fatal diseases such as cat flu, rabbit viral hemorrhagic disease and parvovirus, according to the charity PDSA, with vets fearing that the anti-vax phenomenon is spreading to animals.
The number of domestic animals protected has seen a dramatic decline in recent years, according to the 2019 PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) Report. The survey of 5,036 dog, cat and rabbit owners in Britain found that only two thirds (66%) of pets received their primary vaccinations when young, compared with 84% in 2016.
Furthermore, the report also revealed that about a third of pets (32%) are not getting their regular boosters, which ensure longer-term protection.
The 18 percentage point decrease over just three years could mean more than 7 million pets are now vulnerable to infection, according to the charity.
Creep of anti-vax sentiment into animal care
The worrying fall coincides with the growth in the anti-vaxxer movement, with some parents expressing skepticism about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines. Such resistance has been described as "vaccine hesitancy" and was listed by the World Health Organization in its list of Top 10 Threats to Global Health in 2019.
Daniella Dos Santos, the British Veterinary Association's junior vice president, said the findings came as no surprise:
"Vets are deeply concerned about the creep of anti-vax sentiments into animal care. Our member survey found that 98% of vets have been questioned by clients about the need for vaccination."
"We always welcome questions from clients but we're worried that these conversations are being heavily influenced by what pet owners are seeing online from unreliable sources. Vaccination is vital in protecting pets from preventable and potentially fatal diseases that can be devastating for families."
Sean Wensley, a PDSA senior vet, called the decline in pet vaccinations "extremely worrying."
"Vaccinations have helped to protect millions of pets from serious diseases such as parvovirus, cat flu and Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease," he said.
"If people don't vaccinate, we risk seeing a rise in extremely unpleasant, preventable, diseases that can cause considerable animal suffering and death."
Pet owners gave a variety of reasons for failing to ensure their animals receive the right injections.
Of those who did not vaccinate, 17% deemed it "too expensive," while the same proportion argued that their pet did not come into contact with other animals. A slightly lower proportion (16%) said they felt it was "unnecessary," while 13% said that their "pet found going to the vet very stressful."
Alice Jackson's pet kitten Mr. Meowgi recently died from Feline Leukemia virus (FeLV), a loss she described as "incredibly distressing," for both herself and her son.
"He was an indoor cat and never usually went outside, but one day he escaped and went missing, even though we're always careful not to let him get out," she said.
"If I'd have known a vaccination course would have saved his life I would have had this sorted immediately. Seeing him deteriorate so quickly was so traumatic. My son is autistic and had developed a close bond with him, and having to say goodbye to him has broken all of our hearts."
Among the other issues of concern raised by the report that almost one in five (19%) of dogs are left home alone for too long, while almost half (49%) of rabbits live in "solitary confinement."