PETS AND PEOPLE | Canine Vaccinations? What To Know


Vaccination is one of the easiest and most important ways to protect your dog’s health.  But we live in an age of “over vaccination” scares and a lot of misinformation on the web, and some pet owners are hesitant to vaccinate their dogs.  What is the right way to think about canine vaccinations?  What are the basics?  What should we be aware of when it comes to keeping our pets safe?

First off, start with the facts.  The research and fact-based information available from the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) provides solid vaccination guidelines.  I use them.  You should too.  AAHA’s Canine Vaccination Guidelines are based on science.  A task force of five expert veterinarians created them, along with 18 contributing reviewers, based on practical clinical experience and 123 references to scientific evidence.  The guidelines also underwent a formal, external review process.

Now, onto vaccines. 

Get a rabies vaccine for your dog—it’s the law.  

Rabies is a fatal and preventable disease that can be spread to humans by contact with saliva, so it’s mandatory in all 50 states.  In fact, your veterinarian is bound by law to give your dog a rabies vaccine to protect you as well as your pet.  If an unvaccinated dog is scratched or bitten by a wild animal, it can lead to your pet being quarantined, or euthanized.  In Massachusetts, every pet is required to get its first vaccination after the age of 12 weeks.  From then on, it is considered an annual vaccination.  If your pet is revaccinated within 12 months of the initial vaccination, the second vaccination is good for three years and all rabies vaccinations will only need to be given every three years in the future.

Not all dogs need every vaccine.  

Your veterinarian will ask you questions about your dog’s lifestyle, environment, and travel to help tailor the perfect vaccination plan for him.  Factors such as whether your dog visits dog parks, groomers, competes in dog shows, swims in freshwater lakes, or lives on converted farmland to help you and your veterinarian develop your dog’s individualized vaccination plan.

It’s important to note that there are “core” and “noncore” vaccines.  Vaccinations designated “core” means they are recommended for every dog.  “Noncore” means they are recommended for dogs at risk for contracting a specific disease.  However, your veterinarian may reclassify a “noncore” vaccine as “core” depending on your dog’s age, lifestyle, and where you live.  For instance, in a region like Manchester or Essex, where Lyme disease here is prevalent and therefore classified as endemic, that vaccine should be considered “core.”

Core vaccines:

Rabies, Distemper, Adenovirus-2, Parvovirus+/ Lyme

Noncore vaccines:

(Kennel Cough), Parainfluenza, Leptospira

Titers, or quantitative antibody testing, can help determine your dog’s protection from some diseases.  Titer testing can be useful when a dog’s vaccination history for distemper, adenovirus, and parvovirus is unknown—a positive result typically means he is considered protected. However, no test is 100 percent accurate, so in areas where these diseases run rampant, your veterinarian may still recommend vaccinating.  While titer testing for rabies is available, the law still requires that the dog be vaccinated since this is a fatal, zoonotic (i.e., can be spread to people) disease.

Some vaccines only need boosters every three years.  For example, the distemper vaccine, a combination of distemper, adenovirus, and parvovirus vaccines that protects against very serious diseases, can be given every three years after a dog has completed his initial series of inoculations.  However, a dog’s immunity is as individual as he is, so if you want to have more certainty that he’s protected, have a titer performed to measure the amount of antibody response he has to these diseases.

Protect at-risk dogs annually from certain complex diseases.  If your veterinarian believes your dog is at risk for Lyme disease, leptospirosis, influenza and/or Bordetella (kennel cough), you’ll want to vaccinate him every year instead of every three years because of the differences in how a dog’s immune system responds to these specific germs.

The truth is, serious vaccine reactions are rare.  

The risk of contracting a dangerous disease by not vaccinating a dog outweighs the potential for vaccination side effects.  Still, seek veterinary attention if your dog begins vomiting and scratching, develops bumps (hives), facial swelling, or has difficulty breathing within a few hours of being vaccinated.  Long-term side effects, like behavioral changes, immune-mediated diseases, and other complex conditions, have not been formally linked to vaccinations.  Studies continue on this topic.

And please, don’t administer vaccines to your dog by yourself! 

 It’s scary that vaccines are becoming available through sources other than your veterinarian.  This is high risk.  They may not protect your pet against disease unless they are properly stored, handled, and administered.  Your veterinary team is trained to do this correctly.  (In many states and provinces, it is against the law for anyone other than a licensed veterinarian to give a rabies vaccine.)

Communicate any concerns to your veterinarian.  You and your veterinarian should have the same goal: to provide the best possible care for your pets.  If, say, you are worried about a puppy or small dog receiving too many injections in the same visit, ask if there are noncore vaccines that can be postponed.  Your veterinarian will offer a recommendation based on knowledge of your dog’s specific circumstances and veterinary medicine.

With the exception of the rabies vaccine, the decision how and when to vaccinate your dog is entirely up to you.  I feel very comfortable sharing the science behind the vaccinations I recommend; however, it is not up to your veterinarian to judge pet owner’s choices.  The only vaccination absolutely required by law is the Rabies Vaccine.  The other vaccine that I highly recommend in our geographic area is the Lyme Vaccine.  This vaccine, coupled with a good tick preventative is available in several different forms such as a topical application, a tablet or a collar and will greatly reduce the chance of a companion animal contracting Lyme Disease.

When you make an appointment to see a new veterinarian, make sure he or she has a complete vaccination history.  If you have a new puppy, your veterinarian will discuss your options and decide on a schedule best suited to your pet and one which is comfortable for you.

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