Fido’s dog license is expiring and the subject of dog vaccinations is under discussion in our household.
Rabies is the only vaccination required in most states, including California. A number of other vaccinations — divided into core- and non-core vaccinations — are often given in addition to rabies. As a dog owner, you need to consider what other vaccinations your dog should have — and think about how often those vaccinations should be given. No one answer is right for every dog.
Here’s our quick overview of dog vaccinations. It offers a starting point for you to discuss vaccinations with your vet.
In addition to rabies, most dogs — especially young ones — are given additional shots to protect them from serious diseases like distemper and parvovirus. These are called core vaccinations:
- Canine distemper (CDV) — Related to the measles virus, CDV infection harms the immune system and leads to other infections like pneumonia and encephalitis. The early signs include a runny nose, vomiting, diarrhea, excessive drooling, a cough or labored breathing and loss of appetite. As the disease unfolds, the nervous system is affected leading to seizures and twitching of muscles or muscle groups. Even if a dog survives, it will have life-long — and often life-threatening — issues.
- Canine parvovirus 2 (DPV-2) — This is an acute, highly contagious viral disease first described in the early 1970s. It causes vomiting, diarrhea and sometimes a high fever, all of which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.
- Canine adenovirus 2 (CAV) — This virus causes causes respiratory diseases among dogs. It’s one of the agents that can cause kennel cough, which can spread quickly to other dogs at groomers, in boarding kennels, at doggy day care centers or events that draw a lot of dogs like pet expos, dog shows or competitions. It is related to the virus that causes canine hepatitis (canine adenovirus type 2 — CAV-2).
The non-core vaccinations protect against these infections:
- Parainfluenza — Despite its name, this virus does not cause canine influenza. It causes a highly contagious respiratory infection. Dogs that spend time where many other dogs gather — shelters, kennels, pet stores, groomers, dog parks or dog events and competitions — are at risk of getting this disease.
- Bordetella bronchiseptica — This bacteria causes kennel cough, a loose term for a variety of infections that can cause bronchitis (the dog version of a chest cold). It’s highly contagious. Many groomers, doggie day care centers, boarding kennels or dog event planners require vaccinations against it.
- Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) — This disease is caused by a bite of an infected tick. Once infected, a dog can be given antibiotics relieve symptoms but they can come back. It’s common in northern and northeastern states. In California in 2012, the most recent year for which data are available, there were only 61 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in humans, compared to 4,146 in Pennsylvania.
- Leptospirosis — These spiral-shaped bacteria are usually found in subtropical, tropical and wet environments. Dogs at highest risk for it are hunting and sporting dogs living near wooded areas and dogs that live on or near farms. The vaccinations don’t prevent the disease, but they make it less severe. Leptosiprosis vaccinations are even more likely than rabies vaccinations to cause reactions.
Whether your dog needs core or noncore vaccinations depends on several things:
- How often is your dog around strange dogs? Dogs that regularly go to dog park, groomers, and pet expos and events, may need regular Bordetella shots. (In fact, such a vaccination may be required at events, dog shows or doggie day care centers.)
- Where does your dog live? In Los Angeles County, vaccination against Lyme disease may not be necessary because the risk level is lower than in the northeastern states for example.
- What kind of environments does your dog spend a lot of time in? Dogs that live on or visit farms or wooded areas in swampy subtropical or tropical areas might need Leptospirosis vaccinations.
- What will the vaccination actually do? In some cases, a vaccination will prevent a dog from getting a disease. Rabies is an example. But in other cases, such as Leptospirosis, the vaccination won’t prevent the condition. It will just make an infection milder than it would be otherwise.
Duration of Immunity
Adding another layer of complication to the issue of dog vaccinations is the debate about how long a vaccination will protect a dog.
In the past, the common practice was to give rabies and other shots every year. Ronald Schultz, PhD, Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) and chair of the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, began studying that issue nearly 40 years ago. In 1978, Dr. Schultz first published his recommendation that rabies vaccinations only be given every three years, once the dog was given the initial and booster vaccinations.
According to Dr. Schultz, vaccinations viruses that cause systemic diseases (like rabies, distemper or parvovirus, for example) may actually protect a dog for much longer than three years. He has a theory that they may actually provide protection for up to seven years.
By contrast, shots against bacterial diseases that affect a single body system and mucus membranes (like bordetella) must be repeated every six months to a year.
Dr. Schultz is working with W. Jean Dodds, DVM, on the privately funded Rabies Challenge Study to test how long current rabies vaccines actually protect a dog against rabies.
6 Tips for dog vaccinations
Vaccinations protect your dog from terrible, life-threatening conditions. As with any medical treatment, vaccination decisions are a balancing act against the protection they offer and the possibility of side effects. Here are some tips to help make decisions about vaccinating your dog a little easier:
- Don’t treat vaccinations as a routine event. The risks and benefits of each vaccine should be evaluated each time the vaccine is given, according to Evelyn Sharp, DVM, of Santa Cruz, who was quoted in The Whole Dog Journal (March 2013, p3). Research is continually unfolding and best practices change over time — as does your dog’s health condition and lifestyle.
- Consult with your vet. He or she will know best the diseases prevalent in your area, your dog’s overall health, genetic and breed risk factors and other issues.
- Consider your dog’s life. Where do you walk your dog — city sidewalks or rough forest trails? Does your dog go to dog parks? Does your dog compete in agility trials? Go to doggie day care?
- Review your dog’s age and health. Does your dog have any conditions that may affect his ability to fight off infections? Young puppies and senior dogs may have weaker immune systems.
- Check whether your dog has had bad reactions to vaccinations or medications in the past.
- Consider a vaccine titre test. This is a blood test to detect whether a dog still has antibodies following a vaccination for a specific disease. It shows whether a dog needs a vaccination. These tests cost anywhere from $40 to $120 depending on the vaccination being tested and the vet or laboratory. The benefit is that it can avoid unnecessary vaccinations.
Today’s trip to the vet involved a rabies shot only for Fido. We passed on the non-core vaccinations. Fido doesn’t like dog parks, groomers, kennels, doggie daycare or any other place with a lot of unfamiliar dogs. His risk of parainfluenza or bordetella infection is relatively low. Lyme disease is not prevalent in California and Fido isn’t trekking in woods or fields where ticks would be a concern. His favorite sport is napping or sidewalk monitoring at the local bistro, so leptospirosis also is not a concern for us.