Dog Vaccination: Pros, Risks, & A Sensible Schedule For Vaccines

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(Picture Credit: Rosmarie Wirz/Getty Images)

Dog vaccination is an important way to protect the health of our dogs. But increasingly, responsible pet parents are asking questions so they can make informed decisions about what’s best for their animals.

Maybe you want to understand more about dog vaccination, but even a brief investigation turns up many conflicting opinions. There are some very polarized viewpoints out there that pressure loving pet parents, guilt-trip those who don’t vaccinate, or vilify pet parents who do.

The truth is more subtle and nuanced than most of these arguments. Only by being well-informed can a dog parent make the decision that’s right for their pet. Here’s a balanced insight into everything you should know about dog vaccination, based on the facts.

The Pros Of Dog Vaccination

The huge positive of vaccination is that it protects against life-threatening disease. It’s all too easy to forget the heartbreak before there were vaccinations against distemper and parvovirus. But we have only to think of the desperate need for a COVID-19 vaccine to appreciate what a game-changer this protection can be.

When it comes to infectious disease, an inquisitive puppy is the perfect storm. Not only does that bundle of fluff want to sniff, lick, and eat everything, but their immune system is weak: high exposure to bugs with a poor defense system — hence, why puppy vaccinations are such a big deal.

However, vaccines are victims of their own success. A human may not see the need to protect their pet when they don’t know anyone whose dog has been ill with distemper.

Herein lies an irony, because when lots of dogs are vaccinated, this lowers the chances of disease spreading in the dog park. This is the so-called ‘herd health’ effect, where vaccinating the majority of animals has a protective effect on the unvaccinated.

This can give people a false sense of security, which is worrying because these diseases are still out there.

The Risks Of Dog Vaccination

Midsection of veterinarian injecting dog in medical clinic

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Everything in life comes with some risk attached. Heck, even water is dangerous if you drink too much of it.

Vaccines can and do cause ill effects in some dogs, but fortunately these are usually mild or short-lived; although, there are exceptions).

Vaccine reactions include:

  • Common – (Affecting one-in-ten dogs): A soft lump at the injection site, which usually goes away by itself after a couple of weeks
  • Rare – (Affecting one-in-1,000 dogs): Temporary lack of energy and appetite loss
  • Very rare – (Affecting less than one-in-10,000 or fewer dogs): immune-mediated disease or an allergic- shock reaction.

Keeping Perspective On The Risks

It’s these very rare reactions that create sensationalized headlines and an anti-vaccine backlash. But it’s important to keep this in perspective.

Think about it this way: By vaccinating, 9,999 out of 10,000 dogs are protected against potentially deadly diseases they may well encounter. This is a certainty.

Humans that decide against vaccination eliminate the one-in-10,000 risk of a serious reaction, but leave the pet vulnerable to common diseases with a high mortality rate.

For those still uncomfortable about the serious side effects, which indeed should not be taken lightly, weigh up the following:

  • Allergic shock reactions happen when a sensitized individual is exposed to something to which they are allergic. This could be a person with nut allergy or a dog after a bee sting. Some rare individuals happen to react to vaccines, but vaccination is not of itself dangerous.
  • Allergic shock reactions can be reversed when treated promptly. However, when left untreated, such as if the vaccine was given at home without veterinary support available, they can be fatal.
  • It’s suspected that in some individuals, immune-mediated disease, such as poly-arthritis or destruction of red blood cells, may be triggered by vaccination. However, at present there is little data to back this up. If your pet has suffered from immune-mediated disease in the past, your vet may advise against vaccination just to be on the safe side.

Sensible Vaccine Use

Cute Chihuahua dog gets love and affection as she is getting her annual vet check up by a kind female doctor. She is getting her yearly vaccinations. Her little girl pet owner consoles her during the exam. Doctor's office or animal hospital.

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It’s a fact that veterinarians want what’s best for their patients. With this in mind, they take a rational approach to vaccination, based on the evidence.

This means posing and answering basic questions such as:

  • What diseases might this dog be exposed to?
  • What are the dog’s lifestyle and risks for contacting disease?
  • How long does protection last?

In turn, this influences the diseases vaccinated against, and how often the booster shots are repeated. This is what the vet means by a “vaccine protocol.”

Most vets risk assesses each individual, and then vaccinate accordingly.

Risk Assessing Your Dog

A hunting dog retrieving waterfowl from a lake faces different risks than a Chihuahua carried in a handbag. Whereas the former is well-advised to be vaccinated against leptospirosis — a water-borne infection — a Chihuahua in a low risk area may not need it.

The factors influencing an individual fur friend’s risks include:

  • Their age
  • Their health status
  • If they mix regularly with other dogs
  • The diseases common where they live
  • The diseases common in places they visit on vacation
  • Their activities and life style

You may be asking, “How does this pan out?”

Well, for example, a healthy dog who rarely leaves the backyard is at low risk of catching kennel cough and therefore doesn’t necessarily need vaccination against it.

However, a dog with a severe heart condition who attends doggy daycare would benefit from vaccination against kennel cough because their risk of exposure is high.

Core Versus Non-Core Vaccinations

Cropped shot of a cute little Siberian husky puppy getting vaccinated by a professional veterinarian health care pet animals occupation concept.

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Some vaccines are essential, and even required by law in the case of rabies, while others are more of a maybe. These are known as core (essential) and non-core (optional) vaccines.

The point of this distinction is to avoid giving unnecessary vaccinations by selecting those relevant to each dog.

Here is a list of the core vaccinations that every dog should receive and the non-core vaccinations that dogs may get on a case-by-case basis:

  • Core vaccines
    • Canine distemper virus
    • Rabies
    • Canine parvovirus
    • Canine adenovirus
  • Non-core vaccines
    • Leptospirosis — This one is a hot potato, with some vets advocating it as core.
    • Canine parainfluenza virus
    • Bordetella bronchiseptica
    • Canine influenza virus
    • Lyme disease

Maximizing Benefit and Minimizing Risk

Vaccine protocols are tailored to individual pets. This means only giving the necessary components, and only when necessary.

How often this is, depends on the disease. So Leptospirosis vaccines need to be given yearly because protection only lasts one year, while distemper or parvovirus can be given every few years.

A Sensible Puppy Vaccination Schedule

a vaccination schedule for puppies and dogs

(Picture Credit: posted with permission from PetCare.com.au)

Booster Vaccines Or Blood Titer Tests?

Now, you may be thinking, “Okay, rather than giving routine booster shots, why not run blood tests first to see if dogs have antibodies and don’t even need another shot?”

Antibody titer tests do have a place for some patients, such as those who’ve previously had an allergic reaction to a vaccine. However, they can raise more questions than answers.

Antibody titers measure the body’s immune response, so a positive titer means the dog has ongoing protection against that disease.

Sound simple? If only… Here’s a corker of a brain teaser to get you thinking: When a dog’s vaccine falls due, the vet takes blood and finds that the dog has a positive titer against distemper. So how long does that dog remain protected?

The answer? No one knows. It might be that protection continues for another two, three, four, or even eight more months. But if their immunity is on the wane, by next month their titer may then be negative.

The only way to find out is to keep repeating the test, meaning added stress for the dog and cost for the pet parent.

Long story short, a positive titer is only proof of protection at the time of sampling and tells us nothing about the future.

And Finally, Personal Disclosure

As a veterinarian and a pet parent, I’ve weighed up the risks and have no hesitation in vaccinating my dog.

It’s easy to get blasé about the risks of parvovirus, distemper, or leptospirosis until you see a dog sick with one of these dangerous conditions.

I’ve seen a Lepto dog who was well the previous day, but collapsed in the morning and was dead by 3pm from circulatory shock due to hemorrhagic vomiting and diarrhea, leading to catastrophic liver and kidney failure.

Speaking personally, I know the risks are out there, and my active dog will come into contact with them at some point. These diseases are preventable with vaccination, so this is exactly what I do. How much of a risk-taker are you?

Do you stick to your vet’s recommended vaccination schedule for your dog? Are you worried about any vaccine risks? Let us know in the comments below!

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