Making Vaccines: Animals and vaccines

Animal vaccines have obvious benefits that include keeping our pets healthier and decreasing the costs of veterinary care, but animal vaccines help in other ways too.

Animal vaccines can prevent human disease

One of the best methods for controlling human rabies in the United States is by immunizing pets. In some other countries where dogs and cats are not routinely immunized against rabies, the animals are the major source of rabies cases in humans. However in the U.S., most exposures occur by inadvertent contact with wildlife.

The types of wildlife that account for most exposures in the U.S. vary, depending upon the geographic location. In the eastern part of the country, raccoons account for most human exposures and in the western and central parts of the U.S., skunks are the primary transmitters to humans. Foxes account for most human cases in the northeastern states that border Canada, and in Alaska.

Check out this map created by the CDC which shows the animals most likely to carry rabies in various parts of the U.S. or read more about rabies in the U.S. on the CDC’s website.

Animal vaccines can help the grocery bill

During the 1928 presidential campaign, Republicans promised that a vote for Herbert Hoover would continue the prosperity started by Harding and Coolidge; — they promised the proverbial "chicken in every pot." But it wasn't a president who delivered on this promise, it was a scientist. Dr. Maurice Hilleman developed a vaccine that would ultimately decrease the cost of chicken from $2 to 40 cents and eggs from 50 cents to 5 cents per dozen.

The vaccine that Dr. Hilleman developed prevents a disease in chickens called Marek's disease, which causes leg paralysis and cancers of the skin, ovaries, liver, kidneys, heart and spleen of the animals. It is caused by a herpes virus that spreads easily throughout a flock as well as to neighboring flocks. Prior to the availability of the vaccine, Marek's disease claimed about 20 percent of the chicken population throughout the country.

Find out more about the many accomplishments of Dr. Hilleman.

Animals are also important in human vaccine development

One of the first steps in making a vaccine is making sure it works. Since it would be unethical to test a vaccine in people without any information about whether it works, scientists typically first work with animals.

Check out this video to see how animals have been important in vaccine development.

Vaccine research is not the only time animals are important contributors to science. By working with animals, researchers learn about genetics, disease processes, and treatments.

Check out this video to see how animals are important to research.

Anytime scientists are working with animals in research, they have to have special training, justify why they are choosing to use animals as well as how many animals they need, and adhere to oversight by experts and colleagues to ensure the animals are being treated humanely.

Find out more about working with animals in research and the regulations related to doing so by reading this information from the Pennsylvania Society for Biomedical Research.

Reviewed by Paul A. Offit, MD on October 09, 2019

Materials in this section are updated as new information and vaccines become available. The Vaccine Education Center staff regularly reviews materials for accuracy.

You should not consider the information in this site to be specific, professional medical advice for your personal health or for your family's personal health. You should not use it to replace any relationship with a physician or other qualified healthcare professional. For medical concerns, including decisions about vaccinations, medications and other treatments, you should always consult your physician or, in serious cases, seek immediate assistance from emergency personnel.