Should I vaccinate my dog?

Dog vaccinations

As debate about the safety of vaccinations for children bubbles through the media, many dogs are going unvaccinated because of similar fears in the pet community.

The spread of measles from a child visiting the Disney theme parks in Orange County has kicked off a national debate about whether parents are putting their children at risk because they fear that vaccines are unsafe, unnecessary and needlessly expose children to side effects.

Many veterinarians fear that vaccination-phobia has already spread to pet owners.

Most puppies get a series of shots to protect them against highly contagious and potentially fatal disorders like canine distemper, parvovirus and rabies. It’s difficult to attach numbers to vaccination rates because only rabies is required by government agencies.

Increasingly pet owners are questioning the need for certain vaccinations, the frequency and whether routine vaccinations lead to cancers at the injection sites (especially for cats) — or other side effects.

Ronald Schultz, PhD, a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, began studying the issue of how long a rabies vaccination actually protected a dog in the early 1970s. At the time, annual rabies shots were standard. He published his first recommendations that rabies shots be done every three years in 1978. It wasn’t until 2003 that the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association supported Dr. Schultz’s recommendations.

Dr. Schultz has gone on to conclude that distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus and canine rabies may provide immunity for seven years or more.

While the vaccinated dog may be protected longer than current veterinary practice suggests, the never vaccinated dog is clearly at risk. Dogs that get distemper, parvo or rabies can increase the risk for dogs that have lapsed vaccinations that are weakening in their ability to protect the dog.

Unfortunately, individual decisions quickly become community issues. Last summer, veterinarians in Amarillo began seeing a rise in cases of distemper — once virtually nonexistent in the community. Within six months, vets had seen 200 cases and were diagnosing 10 to 15 new cases a week. The disease takes several weeks for symptoms to show, providing a long period for exposing other dogs to the virus.

The situation highlights the fact that every unvaccinated dog that gets distemper, parvo, rabies or other preventable disease can expose many other dogs in the community.

Some vets and pet owners do blood titers instead of routine vaccinations. A titer is a blood test to see if a dog has enough antibodies to be immune to a particular disease. Dr. Patty Khuly, in a column written for mypetMD, said she was becoming less certain that titers tell the whole story about how well protected a pet is.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate remains a tough question. It’s an area that every dog parents needs to think through carefully. Here are six tips to help you with this difficult decision.