The story of an adverse canine vaccination reaction detailed in recent weeks in my friend Roxanne Hawn’s Champion of My Heart blog inspired me to go back to a piece I wrote for Your Dog newsletter in late 2010. It’s long, so I broke it into two parts. Part 1 puts the larger issues of vaccination in context, while Part 2 discusses what can go wrong — and how to try to prevent it .

Why Vaccinate?

Vaccinations are not only essential to the health of your dog. By preventing the spread of dangerous, highly contagious diseases, they’re also key to the health of the canine community. But one size doesn’t fit all. The type and frequency of vaccines that dogs receive need to be tailored to their individual, ever shifting, circumstances.

Linda Ross, DVM, ACVIM at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, stresses the need to discuss vaccination with your veterinarian. “Beyond the vaccines that are generally recommended for all dogs, there are others that depend on where you live, whether you put your dog in a kennel, go to the dog park, etc.,” she says. “A vet who is familiar with your dog’s routine and medical history can help you decide what’s best for your pet at different life stages.”

Vaccination is the introduction — usually by injection but sometimes nasally or transdermally (by direct application to the skin) — of killed or deactivated organisms in order to provide immunity against the diseases they cause.

The vaccines in widespread use fall into two general categories: the core group, recommended for dogs across the board, and the noncore, which are prescribed based on a dog’s individual circumstances.

Core Vaccines

Core vaccines protect against diseases that are common in North America, that are particularly dangerous and difficult to treat, and that are very easily transmitted. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine Vaccination Guidelines includes in this group distemper, which often causes seizures and spinal cord damage; parvovirus, resulting in severe vomiting and diarrhea; adenovirus, an upper respiratory illness (the vaccine also helps prevent canine hepatitis); and rabies, as dire as depicted in horror films  but usually more quickly fatal than plot requirements dictate

Dr. Ross explains that, in order to make sure individuals don’t get these diseases, the entire population has to be vaccinated against them. “This may be where some people’s confusion comes in,” she says. “Owners say, ‘My dog gotten hasn’t gotten vaccinated and he hasn’t gotten sick.’” This is true, she points out, only because these diseases have been widely eliminated as a result of major vaccination programs. “If the percentage of immunization in the canine population were to drop and one of these diseases were to turn up, it would spread very rapidly,” Dr. Ross says.

Of the four core vaccines, rabies is a special case. Because this agonizing illness can be spread to humans as well as to other dogs and it has an extremely high mortality rate, vaccinations are required by law in the United States. “Rabies is always fatal to the animals,” Dr. Ross says, “and it’s fatal to humans about 99.99 percent of the time.”

Noncore Vaccines

Geography and travel habits are among the factors veterinarians take into account when recommending noncore vaccines, which protect against diseases that are less widespread and, usually, less dangerous, although severe enough to want to minimize their threat. They include parainfluenza and Bordetella, both associated with kennel cough;  canine influenza; Leptospirosis, which causes liver and kidney dysfunction; and Lyme disease, transmitted by the same tick that infects humans but causing somewhat less severe symptoms in dogs.

According to the AAHA, health threats associated with these diseases vary not only by region but also from city to city and even from one section of town to another. Southwest desert-dwellers don’t have to worry about inoculating their dogs against Lyme disease, for example — unless they take them on regular summer vacations to the northeast shore, the type of warm, humid environment where the disease-bearing ticks thrive.

Lifestyle is another thing vets consider when suggesting vaccinations. Dogs that don’t go to daycare and who are not boarded overnight generally don’t need to be concerned about kennel cough, for example.

How soon and how often?

Except in the case of rabies, where immunization is government mandated, there are no strict protocols for veterinarians to follow when determining which vaccines to give their canine patients. Also not standardized — and far more complex in its variables — is the frequency with which vaccines are administered. The duration and degree of immunity provided by each vaccine varies from manufacturer to manufacturer as well as from dog to dog, depending on age, breed and general health.

It’s generally agreed that dogs need to complete a series of core vaccinations when they are puppies and then get booster shots a year later. Dr. Ross says, “We’re never entirely sure when the immunity from the mother wears off but, assuming the puppies were nursing, we recommend starting a series of vaccinations at eight to ten weeks.” Anything before six weeks is too early, she notes. After the initial vaccinations, follow-ups should be given over a period of three or four weeks, with the final immunizations given at 12 to 16 weeks. “Wait one year after the final shot to give the booster,” Dr. Ross suggests, “rather than scheduling them a year from the first shot.”

After the initial one-year booster, the AAHA Canine Vaccine Guidelines recommend that the distemper, adenovirus and parvovirus core vaccines be administered once every three years. This cut back from what was once an annual booster is in keeping with the growing recognition that protection lasts longer than previously thought. It’s hypothesized that, in adult dogs that have been boostered since they were puppies, immunity may last for 5 to 7 years or even a lifetime. This has led veterinarians to vaccinate less frequently for the core diseases.

However, for an adult dog that doesn’t have a documented vaccination history, Dr. Ross advises adopters to repeat an initial vaccination for the core diseases after three to four weeks. She suggests a quarantine period for dogs from shelter or rescue groups that are adopted into homes where there are other pets.

[stextbox id=”alert” caption=”Special Cases: The Shelter”]

Animal shelters create an environment that is particularly conducive to the spread of disease — a fact that has been recognized by the AAHA, which has a separate section for shelter medicine in its vaccination guidelines. “Core diseases are more likely to turn up in shelters, which often house litters of young animals that have not been vaccinated,” Dr. Ross says. And because shelters tend to keep a lot of animals in a confined space, diseases can spread rapidly, no matter how much care the shelter staff takes. The AAHA guidelines advise that dogs at least six weeks old be vaccinated as soon as they enter the facility, with the age lowered to four weeks if there’s already an outbreak.

When coming into a home with other pets, the new family member should be isolated initially. “If the dog hasn’t been vaccinated, you need to have it done immediately,” Dr. Ross says. And it’s important to allow time for the vaccination to take effect or for a disease that the dog might have been exposed to pre-vaccination to show up. Dr. Ross recommends two weeks of separation from the other pets. “That may be a little long,” she says, “but it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

Dogs bought from a pet store need to be treated in the same was as shelter dogs, according to Dr. Ross. Even if they didn’t come from puppy mills, as almost all pet store dogs do, they’re usually kept in close quarters with other dogs of unknown origin.

For more about the special circumstances of shelter medicine, see Shelter Medicine: Veterninary Challenges and Solutions. 



16 thoughts on “Vaccinating Your Dog, Part 1: The Basics”

  1. Great post. Personally I feel we over-vaccinate in general in this county. That being said, our dogs are vaccinated for Rabies and Leptospirosis.

    We discuss the vaccinations each and every time the dogs go in for their annual check-ups and decide at that point whether they need a booster or not.

    I refuse to vaccinate for Bordatella, Sampson had that vaccination and within a month had Kennel Cough. I asked the vet about it and was told, the vaccine prevents 3 or 4 of about 12 strains. Similar to how we vaccinate for flu.

    I’m not sure if your second part of this series covers this or not, but I titre the dogs. Which is a way of measuring the immunities in their blood. In that way I get a good idea of what they may or may not need.

    1. Thanks, Jodi. I do discuss titres in part 2. I agree that we overvaccinate — and under test. The drug companies don’t spend time and money on large studies that would determine just how long vaccines last. And part two has some shocking information on doses….

  2. Well written, Edie. And a very important subject for all dog owners. How we vaccinate has changed greatly in the past decade or so. While once it was common practice to vaccinate against every disease we had a vaccine for, we now realize that doing so can actually be more detrimental to our pets than beneficial.

    1. Thank you, Lorie, both for your helpful and for coming by. It’s always great to hear from a vet (and of course to hear from you)!

  3. Very timely post, Edie. Sadie and I visit our vet on Wednesday. Other than rabies for which Sadie is regularly vaccinated because of the law, we’ve been doing titers for distemper and parvo since Sadie received those vaccinations when she was a puppy. She’ll be 6 years old this August. (Yikes!) Sadie had a reaction to a vaccine when she was a puppy—thankfully a mild one, but that put me on alert as to her potential sensitivity. I know titers are not perfect reflections of immunization, but it’s something. I am concerned about over-vaccinatining. I don’t trust drug companies who I believe are more invested in their bottom-lines than in our dogs’ wellbeing when it comes to peddling vaccines. I’m glad to hear Lorie say that the trend in vet med is to not vaccinate for every disease just because there is a vaccine for it.

    1. Thanks, Deborah. Good luck at the vet on Wednesday. Yup, companies making veterinary drugs are no less bottom line oriented than the human ones. Sigh.

  4. We will also be taking both our pets to the vet this week for their annual exams and vaccinations. I am so glad we switched clinics last year as the one we attend now is much more open to discussing things like vaccinations and seems to be willing to stray from standard practice when in the best interest of the animal. I look forward to your second post. When it comes to vaccinations, there is so much conflicting information.

    1. Good luck to you, too! It’s so important to have someone you can talk to about all the issues surrounding vaccination. Even though my vet is very kind and open-minded, he neglected to mention there can be swelling at the site of a vaccination to me and so I freaked out when I saw a huge lump. “Oh, that’s normal,” he said when I called. Yikes.

  5. Edie – aside from the coincidence that I have a friend named Linda Ross who I heard from today after not hearing from her in a year (and no relation whatsoever to the DVM Linda Ross of your article), I have a question.
    All my dogs are vaccinated. A friend asked if he could leave his dog with us for a few days. Turned out it had never had any shots. Well, for the sake of argument (hey, this is what I live for right_)
    what difference would it make, since my dogs were already all vaccinated – I’m just wondering, since you have the suggestion to keep a new dog separate for 2 weeks to be on the safe side –:)

    I recently posted, which has a link to the 3 minute audio: for which (embarrassed self-promotion) I just received a first place award in the category of radio feature, Society for Professional Journalists Rocky Mountain Division.

    1. I would ask my vet. What if *your* dogs carried something that the guest dog could catch? You wouldn’t want to be responsible. And why wouldn’t your friend’s dog ever have any shots? You probably know your friend and where the dog was likely to have been better than I but wanting to know about shots is not paranoid.

      Funny about the “other” Linda Ross. And your audio is well worth a listen; thanks for posting. Congrats again!

      1. Well, actually, when I found out the 4-month old dog didn’t even have a rabies shot, I was absolutely outraged and took him to the vet myself… I was incensed that he could be exposing my dogs to something, (which I now am second-guessing), but as you say, he could have been exposed to something my precious, perfect, animals had…hmm…okay…turn about is fair play!!!

  6. I’m planning to vaccinate my dog anytime soon since I don’t want her to suffer from those illnesses that they are vulnerable of. Is having these vaccinations can guarantee that they are 100% protected? Thanks for this info.

  7. The timing, frequency and components of vaccines that dogs should receive are all hotly contested. However, most vets, including Dogster’s own Dr. Eric Barchas, agree that dogs don’t need vaccines at 0-7 weeks, 21-24 weeks or at six months.

  8. Being new to owning a pet, I’m trying to become more familiar with what vaccines are beneficial to my dog. I hear conflicting thing and found your article very helpful. Knowing that the viruses in the core vaccine are potentially deadly, but can be prevented by a simple vaccine is a relief to know. Are there cases where it would be more beneficial to not continue giving a core vaccine? I’ll definitely be keeping up with my dogs vaccines in order to keep him as healthy as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *