Wolf Hybrid Owners Face Double Whammy

Wolf Hybrid Owners Face Double Whammy

By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 10/31/1997 Category: | Animal Legislation | Canine Issues |


Wolf hybrids, those canines that are crosses between wolves and dogs, are feared by many, maligned by some, and canines non grata in a growing number of communities. The reasons? Like many animals, hybrids can be unpredictable and dangerous in the wrong hands and there is no rabies vaccine approved for immunization against a public health menace.

Wolf hybrid owners are caught between a rock and a hard place: if well-trained, socialized, and confined, their pets can be good canine citizens and wonderful companions, but an increase in irresponsible and ignorant owners gives the animals a bad reputation.

Like pit bull dogs, Rottweilers, Dobermans, and a handful of other breeds and mixes, wolf hybrids are the target of breed-specific ordinances. Legislators, with the help of animal rights groups, target the animals instead of the owner who allows unacceptable behavior or does nothing to train or confine his canines. Untrained and unsupervised, wolfdogs have attacked children and adults and caused severe injury and death. Hybrids that enter shelters are generally euthanized as unplaceable, and few rescue groups or sanctuaries will take them in.

Hybrids do have their supporters, though. The National Wolf Hybrid Association has a breed standard, a code of ethics for breeders, and a newsletter, provides education about the animals, and supports the rescue of hybrids from cruel or neglectful situations. The Wolf Dog Coalition and the Rabies-Vaccine Approval Finding Team work for approval of canine rabies vaccine for their animals, and other organizations provide similar information and support.

What is a wolf hybrid?

A wolf hybrid or wolfdog is the offspring of a wolf and a dog, a wolf and a wolfdog, or two wolfdogs. Many hybrids are part German Shepherd, Alaskan Malamute, or Siberian Husky, but Chow Chows, Akitas, and other breeds are often used. The wolf part of the heritage comes from a population of wolves that has been bred in captivity for many years as it is illegal to capture a wolf from the wild.

Although advertisements often specify "62 percent," "97 percent," or some other percentage of wolf, it is impossible to know for sure unless the animal is the offspring of a wolf and a dog. Percentages can be figured mathematically, but since the inheritance of genetic material is completely random, anything beyond 50-50 is a guess.

The higher the percentage of wolf genes inherited by the animal, the more difficult it can be to train, for wolf characteristics differ from those of dogs. High-percentage hybrids are prey-driven and can be destructive, difficult to housetrain, and fear-aggressive. These characteristics make them dangerous in the hands of ignorant or irresponsible owners and lead to breed bans.

Rabies  Vaccinations

All mammals are susceptible to rabies, and the disease is a definite threat to public health. Once the disease becomes active, it is fatal. Since no vaccine is approved for use in canine hybrids (wolfdogs and coydogs), veterinarians are often hesitant to vaccinate these animals. Lack of vaccination puts hybrids at risk in high rabies areas; for this reason Texas requires vaccination of wolfdogs because of a disease outbreak in coyotes and gray foxes.

The National Association of Public Health Veterinarians reported that of 50 states, the District of Columbia, and three US territories, 22 governments forbid vaccinating wolf hybrids, five require routine vaccination, 12 allow vaccination with a release statement, and 14 do not address the issue.

The studies necessary to gain approval for rabies vaccination for wolf hybrids have not been done and are unlikely, for the relatively low number of these animals and the fact that they are banned in more and more communities make such studies unprofitable. The hope for approval instead seems to lie with convincing the US Department of Agriculture that wolves and dogs are indeed the same species and therefore the vaccines will be as effective in wolves and hybrids as it is in dogs. Cindy Goodman's report on the USDA meeting last April indicates that such approval is not in the immediate future.

What you can do

Work for generic dangerous dog laws in your state, county, and city. A breed-specific law hurts all dog owners because it places the emphasis on the type of animal rather than the actions of the owner.

APHIS denies rabies vaccine for wolfdogs

Wolf-dog ownership rights, a heated legislative topic in 1996, continues to be a political hot potato in 1997. The issues range from rabies vaccination approval to dangerous dog designations.

In April 1996 the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service held a meeting in Maryland to assess the similarities and differences between domesticated and wild canids in relation to vaccination protocols regarding rabies. Currently the estimated 300,000 to 2.5 million wolf-dogs and wolves owned by United States citizens have no federally approved rabies vaccination protocols. It was the hope of wolf dog and wolf owners that the APHIS meeting would generate approval of a rabies vaccine for wolves and hybrid wolves.

Dr. Miller, Chief Staff Veterinarian of the USDA moderated the approximately five-hour APHIS meeting. The panel composed of Dr. Rupprecht of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Nowak (mammalogist), Dr. Gergits (geneticist) Dr. Pierott (evolutionary biologist), N.E. Federoff (wildlife biologist), Dr. Templeton, and Dr. Kueppers (immunologist), did not have the authority of an "advisory panel" and could not make recommendations.

Wolf-dog owners representing various organizations such as Alabama Wolf Hybrid and Exotic Animal Association, Aniwaya Wolf Club, Iowolfers, PAWW (Protective Association for the Wolf/Wolfdog), RAFT (Rabies-Vaccine Approval Finding Team), the Wolf Dog Coalition, the Wolf Dunn, United States American Wolf Dog Association and Virginia Citizens for Common Sense Animal Laws were in attendance. Also in the audience were representatives of the Animal Health Institute, state veterinarians from Alabama and Virginia, and the chairman of the Compendium for Animal Rabies Control.

Six of the seven panelist expressed the opinion that wolves and dogs are the same at the species level; Dr. Vowak believed that wolves and dogs were each others closest relatives with only morphological differences such as skull parameters and teeth size. All expressed the belief that there were no differences relating to immunology. All of the panelists believed that wolves and wolf/dogs would respond similarly to the canine rabies vaccine.

Responding to Dr. Miller's query regarding the use of modified live vaccines for diseases such as parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus, and parainfluenza, the panelists stated that they did not condone the use of modified live vaccines in any canids including domestic dogs but would use them if no killed vaccines were available. The panelists argued that approval of the rabies vaccine did not automatically engender approval for other vaccines. The panelists concluded that humans were not susceptible to the other canine diseases and that the discussion should be limited to rabies which is a public health threat.

Contrary to the panelist opinions, APHIS determined that data provided to APHIS on the issue of the similarity of wolves and dog "have been conflicting and inconclusive," and APHIS would "not support a change in APHIS policy concerning the approval of recommendations for the use of rabies vaccines in wolves at this time." Drs. Federoff, Nowak, Pierotti, Kuepers and Gergits wrote an opposition statement on September 24, 1996, briefly outlining the data used in the conclusion that the immune systems of the wolf and dog were similar. In their conclusion they recommended "that USDA/APHIS reevaluate this decision and that wolves and wolf-dog crosses be vaccinated in the best interests of public and animal health."

The APHIS decision to not approve rabies vaccination for wolves and wolf-dogs may not only poise public and animal health issues but has been used to support legislation limiting or banning ownership of wolves and wolf-dogs. Several states have already enacting limiting legislation and more are currently being considered.

Scientists question USDA rabis vaccine decision

In a letter dated September 24, 1996, five scientists questioned the USDA refusal to approve rabies vaccinations for wolf hybrids. The scientists had testified in favor of approval at the agency's April 1996 meeting. Their rebuttal is reprinted in its entirety with permission.

USDA/APHIS recent (non) decision, after an entire scientific expert panel recommended use of present day inactivated rabies vaccines on wolves and wolf-dog crosses, is irresponsible and may endanger public health by creating a vulnerable population of domestic animals susceptible to rabies living in close proximity to humans. The present day vaccines are safe and efficacious in many diverse species of mammals (dogs, cats, horses, cows, etc.). Rabies in domestic animals has declined significantly in the US and Canada due in large part to successful vaccination programs.1 This decline was not due to a non-approval or non-use of the vaccines available. An animal cannot be protected if it is never vaccinated.

There is no scientific evidence that a wolf's immune system is significantly different than a dogs; in fact, the preponderance of the evidence points to the opposite. Documentation suggests that rabid wolves die within four weeks of exposure to the virus 2,3,4,5, similar to wolf/dog crosses6 and dogs 7,8 in this respect. Blood chemistries, hematology, serologies, and response to a variety of anesthetics are similar between dogs and wolves. Furthermore, vaccines, including rabies vaccines, used on dogs have long been routinely used on captive wolves with similar effectiveness.9

USDA/APHIS argue that if the rabies vaccine is approved for use in wolves, then other vaccines against parvovirus and distemper for example, will have to be approved also. This is illogical and may again endanger public health. Humans are not susceptible to these diseases, although humans are definitely susceptible to rabies. Their logic is elusive. Recently, a paper appeared in JAVMA10 stating that 41 percent of states and territories of the US do not allow vaccination of wolf-dog crosses. Other states allowing vaccination may follow suit once the USDA/APHIS recommendations are widely read, once again endangering public health, possibly to an even higher level.

USDA stated that their preferred study would be challenge-testing according to Title 9, CFR part 113.209, however, testing has been accomplished under these regulations since rabies vaccines are tested according to species. Disregarding current taxonomy11 and evolutionary12 and genetic13,14 relationships and applying a misguided use of the Biological Species Concept in relation to this issue, USDA/APHIS have disregarded the scientific panel's unanimous recommendation that rabies vaccines currently licensed for dogs should also be used in wolves and wolf-dog crosses.

The logic that USDA/APHIS has used that wolves and coyotes can reproduce and produce fertile offspring and still are not considered the same species is generally misguided. Using their logic, Great Danes and Chihuahuas should be designated as separate species based on a mechanically reproductive isolating mechanism. The use of skull morphometrics alone would undoubtedly classify the two breeds as separate genera. A total disregard of systematics has taken place in relation to this issue. The skull of an animal does not respond to a vaccine and is not the factor deciding if a vaccine will prime the immune system or not.

In closing, we recommend that USDA/APHIS reevaluate this decision and that wolves and wolf-dog crosses be vaccinated in the best interests of public and animal health.

About The Author

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All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf | Cindy Goodman |
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