Which Vaccines Does My Pet Need?
Updated: May 4
In the last year, there have been a lot of posts on social media regarding vaccinations, and often times pet owners want to know - are those vaccines you're recommending really necessary? So instead of getting medical advice from Dr. Google, I've decided to post here on the blog the information that I give each of my clients at their first appointment. I like for each family member to be an informed participant in their pet's healthcare decisions, so let's go over the vaccines available for both dogs and cats, the difference between core and lifestyle vaccines, and other hot topics like titers and vaccine waivers.
Rabies - This vaccine is required by law for all dogs over 6 months of age. The first vaccination is good for 1 year, and each subsequent booster (given at least 9 months after the first) is good for 3 years. Due to the success of mandatory rabies vaccinations, we have almost eliminated human deaths from the virus in this country (and, by vaccinating your dog, you're also helping eliminate rabies in developing countries through the Mission Rabies! program - click here to learn more!)
DAPP ("Distemper/Parvo") - This vaccine protects against 4 diseases: distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza and parvovirus (DAPP). In our area, the most important part of this vaccine is the parvovirus protection, since we do still have outbreaks of this disease. Parvovirus causes severe intestinal diseases that requires several days of hospitalization in an isolation ward of an emergency clinic for recovery. Young puppies are particularly susceptible and this disease is highly fatal in unvaccinated dogs. The good news is that the vaccination is extremely effective in protecting your dogs against this disease (as well as the other 3 diseases). Puppies start this vaccine at 6-8 weeks of age and must be vaccinated every 3-4 weeks until they are over 16 weeks of age. That final puppy booster is protective for one year, and after that each vaccination is protective for 3 years.
Leptospirosis - I once considered this a "lifestyle" vaccine, but due to a recent increase in cases in our area I've personally moved this into my "core" recommendation category (though you'll likely still find this listed as an optional vaccine with many vets). Lepto, as it's commonly called, is a bacteria that is spread through infected urine (from wild mammals and rodents as well as domestic pets) and contaminated water (such as puddles, lakes and ponds). This disease can cause liver and kidney failure in dogs (which can be fatal) and can also be spread to humans. This particular vaccination that I use protects against the 4 most common serovars (types) of Leptospirosis. After the initial series is completed, each vaccination is good for 1 year. (Want to learn more about Leptospirosis? Check out this separate blog post here.)
Bordetella - Commonly called the "kennel cough" vaccine, it protects against the most common bacterial cause of kennel cough that is easily transmitted between dogs in high risk areas and may lead to pneumonia. I consider this a core vaccine for all puppies (since they'll likely be attending socialization or training classes) and then optional for adult dogs, based on their risk factors. Any dogs going to the groomers, dog park, traveling or spending time at a boarding facility should be vaccinated against Bordetella. This vaccine is good for 1 year.
Lyme - Most of us are familiar with Lyme disease, which in dogs can cause a fever, joint swelling and arthritis and in rare cases kidney failure. Even dogs that don't exhibit the traditional symptoms of Lyme arthritis can still have changes in their joint cartilage if exposed to Lyme disease. The best protection is year round (not just seasonal!) tick protection, but for dogs at an increased risk (such as those dogs that live in heavily wooded areas or that go hiking or camping), the vaccine provides an added level of protection. Ticks that transmit Lyme disease can be as small as a poppy seed - imagine trying to find that in your dog's thick fur! After the initial vaccination series, this must be boostered annually.
Rabies - The State of Massachusetts requires all cats over 6 months of age to be vaccinated against rabies (yes, even if your cat is indoors only). The reason for this is because of the fact that rabies is 100% fatal if an animal or human contracts the disease. By ensuring that the largest number of pets possible are vaccinated, we can reduce the risk of the spread of rabies.
RCP (Feline Distemper) - This vaccination protects against Rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia virus. The first two diseases are part of an upper respiratory disease complex, and panleukopenia can cause severe disease that affects the intestines, immune system and nervous system. Kittens must be vaccinated every 4 weeks until they are at least 16 weeks of age and adult cats require at least one booster if they have not previously been vaccinated. At that time the vaccination will be good for 1 year. After that, each booster is good for 3 years.
Leukemia - this vaccine is now recommended for all kittens, but after their 1-year-old booster the cat's lifestyle will determine whether the vaccination series is continued. This is a newer protocol based on updated recommendations from the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). Why is it recommended for all kittens to receive this vaccination? Kittens are more susceptible to leukemia virus than adult cats are, and if your indoor-only kitten decides it wants to spend more time outdoors, then it would be highly susceptible to developing feline leukemia. After they receive their 1-year-old booster, then we decide what their risk will be for continuing the vaccination at future exams - if they remain indoor only we discontinue the series, but if they continue to spend time outdoors (or if you foster cats, rescue cats, or have another cat that lives at least part time outdoors) then we continue the vaccination series.
Cats are unique creatures. I'm sure anyone with a cat will agree that they like to do things on their terms. A cat can show you love with the present of a dead mouse (or by having her kittens in your shoes - don't ask me how I know). Another thing that cats can sometimes (thankfully rarely) develop are what we call "injection site sarcomas" (also commonly called vaccine-associated sarcomas). While rare, these are unfortunately aggressive tumors that can form after any injection that causes inflammation. Some vaccines contain what we call "adjuvants", which are put in the vaccine to create more inflammation and increase the immune response. Luckily, not all vaccines are created equal, and the Purevax line of vaccines are what we call "non-adjuvanted", meaning none of their vaccines contain this extra inflammatory component. While there is no way to predict which cats may ultimately develop these tumors, there are precautions that can be taken, such as administering each vaccine in a different leg and using the Purevax line of vaccines for my feline patients.
(Please note - sometimes a small nodule can form at the site of the vaccine, and this should be reported to your vet immediately. Often times these will go away within 1 month, and are simply a local reaction from the vaccine. If the nodules grow or remain present after that time, then additional testing is likely going to be needed.)
I hope I haven't scared you away with this information. Vaccinations are extremely important for our feline friends, and they do a lot more good than bad; however as I mentioned earlier I want each owner to be an informed participant in their cat's preventative healthcare plan. This means knowing the risks and the benefits, so we can develop a plan tailored to your pet.
Distemper vaccine titers - while available for some vaccines, I don't generally recommend titers for most healthy dogs. Why? Well, the biggest reason is that we don't know what titer level is considered protective. Unfortunately, we do have cases of parvovirus in our area and I would personally prefer knowing that your dog is protected instead of guessing and hoping they don't get sick. That said, for pets that have a higher than normal risk associated with vaccines, titers may be an option that we can discuss at your appointment.
Rabies vaccine titers - these are not allowed to be a substitute for vaccination. These are needed for travel to some countries to demonstrate that the pet has received vaccinations and that they have provided some protection for the pet.
Rabies vaccine waiver - while you may have come across information about these waivers in your local or state regulations, it's not a simple process. These waivers are typically reserved for patients that have severe medical conditions and for whom vaccinations are contraindicated and may be fatal. These waivers must be renewed each year, and submitted to the state for review.
"Natural" immunity - this is a newer concept where some people believe in not vaccinating their pets and instead relying on the pet's own immune system to keep them safe. Suffice it to say that I do not subscribe to this theory. Puppies that don't finish the vaccination series for parvovirus, for example, can die of the disease just 2-4 weeks after their missed booster. I'm not willing to take that chance --- are you?
I know, that's a lot of information, but my goal here is to provide enough background information that you'll be prepared to discuss these vaccinations at your next visit. Ask any questions you have, make sure you're informed, and remember that it's never too late to protect your pets.
Ready to schedule your pet's annual wellness visit? That's right - each of these vaccines can be administered in the comfort of your own home with a housecall. Click here to contact me today.
- Dr. Johnson