Florida Lupine: Response to APHIS Rabies Proposal

APHIS, a division of the USDA, submitted a proposal to amend the Virus-Serum-Toxin Act which requests that canine biologicals (i.e., vaccinations) be approved for use in wolves and wolfdogs. APHIS published the proposal online on September 28, 1999, for public comment for a period of two months.

The following is the reply from the FLA Board, favoring the proposed amendment to include wolfdogs and wolves in all canine biologicals.

Docket No. 99-040-1
Regulatory Analysis and Development, PPD, APHIS, Suite 3C03
4700 River Road, Unit 118
Riverdale, MD 20737-1238

Comments below refer to Docket No. 99-040-1. This docket proposes the recognition of canine biologicals currently for use in dogs as also being effective in wolves and wolf/dog crosses.

The Florida Lupine Association, Inc., is in favor of this proposal and we will discuss the reasons below.

In 1993, dogs were reclassified as a subspecies of wolf (Canis lupus familiaris) by the Smithsonian Institute and the American Society of Mammalogists in the Mammal Species of the World, A Taxonomical and Geographic Reference.

In the last few years, as DNA research has advanced technologically, many studies have been conducted to indicate that the genetic relationship between wolves and dogs is so close that “dog” does not warrant separate species status. In fact, Robert K. Wayne (1993), canine evolutionary biologist at UCLA, asserted that dogs are a diverse group of modified wolves: “Dogs are gray wolves, despite their diversity in size and proportion.”

More recent evolutionary and molecular genetic studies reaffirm Wayne’s findings: dogs in some clades are more closely related to wolves than they are to dogs in other clades (Vila, et. al., 1997). Therefore, it defies logic to approve biologicals for one subspecies (Canis lupus familiaris) while denying the other subspecies (e.g., Canis lupus arctos or Canis lupus tundrarum) when molecular genetic studies have shown that not only are wolves the direct and recent ancestor of dogs, but also that some dogs are genetically more closely related to wolves than to other dogs (Vila, et. al., 1997).

Not only are we advocates for the responsible ownership of wolfdogs, but we are also involved in the rescue and placement of wolfdogs in Florida. In our dealings with various wolfdog owners, we have seen numerous wolfdogs (and dogs coming into rescue as alleged wolfdogs) that have never been rabies vaccinated. This presents a clear threat to the well-being of other mammals in this state as Florida has a relatively high rate of rabies outbreaks.

Many wolfdog owners are aware of some kind of rabies issue; however, much of the “issue” appears to be shrouded in myth. Some owners suffer the belief that the rabies vaccine will kill their animals; thus they refuse to have their wolfdogs vaccinated.

In fact, Pasco County, Florida, filed a lawsuit against Frank Furuya for failure to vaccinate his wolfdogs. Furuya feared that the lack of approval for wolfdogs meant that the rabies vaccine could be potentially harmful, even fatal, if administered to his animals; therefore, he refused to vaccinate them. The case was dismissed because Pasco County’s definition of “dog” in its ordinance was too restrictive: “a domestic dog, Canis familiaris”.

Pasco County is now rewording the ordinance, changing the definition of dog to “‘dog’ means, but is not limited to, any genetic hybridization thereof, including but not expressly limited to wolf hybrids and coyote hybrids”; however, in the absence of an approved vaccine, Pasco County is still unable to mandate that wolfdog owners vaccinate their animals—a serious concern to the county and health officials.

Wolfdog owners are not the only ones who suffer under the erroneous belief that the “lack of approval” for the rabies vaccine translates to “it fails to work” in wolves and wolfdogs. Many veterinarians suffer the same beliefs, some suggesting that it isn’t worth the expense or effort of vaccinating and some refusing to vaccinate altogether. Approval of the vaccine will prompt these veterinarians into encouraging owners to vaccinate their wolfdogs and wolves, rather than deterring them from doing so.

On a final note, there is much debate over the number of wolfdogs present in the U.S. Much of the confusion arises from people selling or buying dogs that are portrayed as wolfdogs when they are, in fact, dogs. On the other hand, many are afraid to claim they have a wolfdog and, therefore, maintain that they have a mixed breed dog.

Nevertheless, the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA) estimates that between 300,000 and 2.5 million wolfdogs and wolves are kept as pets in the United States. If even half of these pets are unvaccinated, 150,000-1.25 million (using NAIA’s figures) is an extremely large number of canines to be unprotected from rabies—an especially dangerous health hazard for all mammals living in areas with relatively high outbreaks of rabies.

Until approval is granted for the use of canine biologicals in wolfdogs and wolves, states and counties with these animals will remain at risk; rewriting county and state laws mandating vaccinations for wolves and wolfdogs may be somewhat effective, but without federal approval of these biologicals for said animals, vaccinations cannot be legally enforced.

The Board of Directors
Florida Lupine Association, Inc.


Vila, C., P. Savolainen, J.E. Maldonado, I.R. Amorim, J.E. Rice, R.L. Honeycutt, K.A. Crandall, J. Lundeberg, and R.K. Wayne. 1997. Multiple and ancient origins of the domestic dog. Science 276.

Wayne, Robert K. 1993. Molecular evolution of the dog family. Theoretical & Applied Genetics 9:6.

—Reprinted from Florida Lupine News, Winter 1999