Dog Vaccinations: are they really necessary?

Tomorrow is World Veterinary Day (WVD), an annual event that highlights the role of veterinary profession around the world. This year’s theme is the importance of vaccination to animal health. Over the past two hundred years, scientists have created vaccines that have prevented – and, in some cases, eradicated – diseases in humans and animals.

Yet if you talk to pet owners online, the question of the need to vaccinate is one that keeps cropping up. People worry that vaccines may even be causing illnesses, and sadly, they sometimes feel that they cannot trust the advice from their vet, because the vet benefits financially from the sale of the vaccine.

There is a danger here that pet owners may stop vaccinating their pets, and if they do, it’s likely that they will get away with doing so for a number of years. Vaccines have caused serious illnesses to become rare, so that there may not be an immediate threat to most pets. The problem is that if people choose not to vaccinate, there will be a growing population of unprotected animals that are vulnerable to viral disease if an epidemic does occur.

It’s useful to compare the situation with measles in humans. Before the introduction of measles vaccination in the UK in 1968, about half a million people caught measles each year of whom about 100 died. The introduction of the MMR vaccine in 1988 led to a dramatic reduction in measles, with only two human deaths from the disease in the past twenty years. False claims in the late 1990′s that MMR could cause autism led many parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. Vaccine rates dropped and there are now up to two million young people who remain unvaccinated: they are at risk of the disease.

This is not just theoretical: an outbreak of measles is currently happening in Wales, with over eight hundred confirmed cases including over eighty patients being treated in hospital. The first death happened last week, when a twenty five year old man passed away. As one official said, “Measles is a serious, horrible disease. We need to get rid of it.” The sad truth is that we know how to get rid of it: vaccinations, which have been proven to be safe and effective. Public health officials are now running large scale measles vaccine clinics to protect people who missed out on childhood vaccination, but there are still worries that the proportion of unvaccinated people may be so high that the current measles outbreak will spread to elsewhere in the UK, with further deaths.

There have been similar false claims about dangers associated with vaccinations in the pet world, and as a result, there is a risk of the gradual development of a large unvaccinated population of pets. This would create the potential for an outbreak of one of the nasty viral diseases of pets in a similar way to the human measles situation.

It is true that there is a low incidence of adverse reactions to vaccines. Like humans who feel a little under the weather after some vaccines, pets can suffer mild signs of illness as their immune system reacts to the vaccine. This is part of the same immune reaction that causes the body to produce antibodies against the virus, so it’s nothing to worry about. More serious adverse reactions, such as allergic or autoimmune diseases, do happen, but they are exceptionally rare. Overall, the reported incidence of any type of problem is less than one in five thousand; the risk of a serious reaction is much lower than this.

The aspect of dog vaccines that seems to worry owners most is the traditional model of “once yearly boosters”. People don’t understand why this is necessary, when in humans, childhood vaccines often confer lifetime immunity. Why do pets need so many vaccines?

The answer to this is complicated: when vaccine regimes were first devised, back in the 1970′s,  there was a high mortality rate from diseases like Parvovirus and Distemper. Duration of immunity after vaccines had not been clearly established, and the safest option was the once yearly booster. In recent years, more studies have been done, with many vaccines now promising immunity for three to five years for some diseases after the annual booster at fifteen months of age.

In the face of this changing information about vaccines, the challenge for vets has been to recommend a reduced vaccine schedule while still ensuring that no vulnerable animals slip through the loop. Much as pet owners may appreciate the opportunity to go to the vet less often, if even one animal died of a preventable viral disease, vets would feel that they had failed.

The veterinary profession has tackled this on a global scale, by setting up expert groups, using independent scientists to assess the evidence and to provide guidelines for the vaccination of pets. A simple set of recommendations have now been issued to vets across the world by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and these offer the safest approach to pet owners. You can read them for yourself online by clicking here.

Vaccines are now classified as “core” and “non-core”. Core vaccines include those which all animals need to receive, which means Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus for dogs. Non-core vaccines are those that are required by only those animals whose geographical location, local environment or lifestyle places them at risk. Examples include Leptospirosis, Kennel Cough and Rabies, although the prevalence of rats in many parts of the UK  is so high that many people would regard Leptospirosis as a core vaccine in this country.

The aim of the veterinary profession is to vaccinate every animal with core vaccines and to vaccinate at-risk individuals against non-core vaccines if they are seen to be at risk.

The WSAVA guidelines also address the recommended frequency of vaccination: for the main core vaccines, after puppy shots followed by a booster at fifteen months of age, it’s now regarded as safe to repeat the vaccine every three years. If dogs need to be protected against certain other illnesses- including Leptospirosis and Kennel Cough – immunological studies have demonstrated that once yearly vaccines are still needed.

This can all become over-complicated for the average pet owner, which is why it’s still recommended that the safest answer is a once yearly health check by your vet. The vet will review your pet’s health and lifestyle, and will then only give the vaccines which are judged to be necessary. In the United Kingdom, for most dogs, the recommendation is likely to be a once yearly vaccine against Leptospirosis, with a booster against Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus every three years. Other vaccines, such as Kennel Cough and Rabies, may also need to be given, depending on the dog’s activities.

There is plenty more to discuss on this subject, including widely-disseminated but unproven claims that over-vaccination is the cause of a wide spectrum of illnesses in the dog world. Perhaps that’s a subject for another blog.

  • Gill says:

    Having witnessed dogs developing KC, parvo, Distemper and Lepto AFTER they have had several years of vaccinations I find myself unable to agree with this. I have also witnessed cases of Vaccine Activated Sarcoma in cats.
    Other than puppy/kitten shots and 1 year booster I no longer vaccinate.

    I would refer anyone who wishes to read the recent study by Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine
    http://www.dogsnaturallymagazine.com/purdue-vaccination-studies/

    I believe a healthy diet of natural foods, ( not mass produced dog and cat foods full of fillers) that boost immune systems is equally if not more effective, than pumping animals full of chemicals. Homeopathic medicine and natural immune boosters in my experience have been far more effective.

  • Eileen Finnan says:

    Hi Pete, I agree about your research on vaccinations in pets. However, September 2011 I had my dog (from Dog Trust) vaccinated as usual and because I was leaving him into a kennel while we went on holidays I also had the vet give him the Kennel Cough vaccine. The following June Tim contracted a different strain of Kennel Cough which left me wondering was the one I got in September worthwhile? Should I still continue to have him vaccinated against Kennel Cough?

  • pete says:

    Gill – I deliberately avoided discussing cat vaccines – although they too are mentioned in the WSAVA guidelines, there are a number of specific issues that I’d like to discuss, including vaccine related sarcomas.
    And it’s true that there is a low rate of vaccine failure – no vaccine ever claims to be 100% effective, but the evidence is there that they provide good protection for the large majority of patients.
    Re: the cases you mention, each would need to be investigated individually to find out precisely what happened, but:
    1) There are many causes of coughing other than Kennel Cough
    2) I have seen many cases of “Parvo” which have turned out to be something else on detailed examination – in the cases you mention, was the actual virus isolated? This is the only way that the diagnosis can be proven
    3) It is true that there are numerous strains of Lepto, and the vaccine does not cover them all. My take is that it is better to cover what can be covered, and accept that you have done your best to protect your pet.
    I agree with the value of a top quality diet, with identifiable ingredients and minimal unnamed fillers but I don’t believe that this is likely to fend off infectious viral diseases on its own. Vaccines are still needed.
    While I have heard some impressive anecdotes about homoeopathy, I fail to understand why it has been impossible to prove that it works. My only conclusion from this is that while it may occasionally have some effect, it is not reliably and predictably effective, and since there is not even a reasonable scientific explanation for how it could work, I cannot recommend it as a first-line therapeutic modality. In my mind it would be highly irresponsible to give a litter of pups unproven nosodes rather than proper vaccinations.
    As I pointed out, people like you will be able to get away without protecting their pets with vaccination for many years, but if the WSAVA guidelines are not followed, there is a risk that a large poplulation of unprotected animals will accumulate, and eventually, as with the current measles situation, there will be an epidemic of some sort. It may never happen, given the way pets are kept in relative isolation, but the risk is there.

  • pete says:

    Eileen – with many diseases, there are different strains of virus, and different forms of similar infectious illnesses. But I’d just go back to the science – the Kennel Cough vaccine has been proven to be effective against the most common strains, and so its use is well justified.

  • Jane Roberts says:

    Hi Pete, I found your article very interesting…all my animals have been vaccinated and chipped bar one…she came to live with me about two years ago. I live in rural Spain and here rabies vaccinations are obligatory. However this dog is 14 or 15 years old and I don’t know if at her age to start vaccinations would be safe for her, and if by now she has built up her own immunity. For this reason she isn’t chipped, as the vet would by law have to give her the rabies vaccination as well.
    Any thoughts???

  • Mary K says:

    I have no problem with vacination of dogs. It’s the yearly boosters that bother me. Are they really neccessary????. Studies and titer tests have shown that the vacines can last up to 8 years in the dog, therefore not nessitating boosters yearly. I have personnelly seen bad side effects from boosters , too many in such a small community of dogs to make me very wary.

  • pete says:

    It certainly wouldn’t be unsafe to vaccinate her, but the question is: is it necessary? The best thing would be to discuss her background and her current lifestyle with your local vet, and to do a risk assessment, and after doing that, make a decision…..

  • Hi Pete, as a Professional Dog Groomer and dog owner, and due to incidents in the past year, I have different areas of concern and dilemma. Perhaps you could shed some light please because I have been between a rock and a hard place on this for 3 months now!! As a Salon Groomer who takes her own 3 dogs to work each day, I have a definite duty of care to my client owners to ensure my dogs are not a health threat to their dogs….sadly it does not always work vice versa, so to have my own dogs protected at least ensures their protection. A year ago I lost my beautiful Airedale a week after he had Boosters of Vacc & KC…he went from being fine to dead in 4 days flat! We had no time to process his loss and the grief continues to be unbearable. He dies from a tumour mass inside his spleen…..his blood count cells were on the deck and he was severely anaemic…all of which must have been present for sometime but on the outside, Dexter looked and acted a picture of health?? Of course I realise we would have lost him as a result of his ‘invisible illness’ but what scared me was our vet commented that many times the boosters/vacs can actually act as a catalyst in causing the illness/condition to come forward and ‘present’ itself which was clearly what happened to my boy! There is talk that after 7Yrs of age the vaccines are ineffective….my Schnauzer and Wire Fox are 10 & 11 yrs old….so what’s the point? Finally I rescued a bitch Wire Fox who had been tied up on an allotment for the first 2 years of her life…she came to me in an appalling condition and I have worked solidly for 10 months to get on top of her skin conditions caused from sleeping in her own excrement and urine…atopic dermatitis of some description and antibiotics, Fuciderm and various other concoctions have failed to bring it under control….I am finally winning with Porridge Oat baths and apple cider vinegar along with alternate, week alternate day Aveeno moisturising cream applications. I fear to renew her Booster will kick start her raw and inflamed, bleeding skin as she seems to react to the slightest change in diet or grooming regime?? If I do not renew her Booster, her Insurance becomes void…. a most complex situation all round for me with decisions whether to/or not to, should I/or not…. our new vet (took over from the retired one of 25Yrs who I trusted with my life) sits on the fence batting questions back at me rather than answering them straight!! I am so confused……. Thanks for taking the time to read this long post. Maria

  • Carole says:

    I always ensure my pets have the basic vaccinations, a booster a year later then top ups ever 3 years or so (depending on where I am and in accordance with local conditions). My own Vet has told me that there is little FelV in my area now – but new cats are moving to the vicinity all the time and may bring the disease in, hence I am going ti have her vacccinated next week (she is nearly 6 months and not been outside alone as yet). i am also going to have her rabies vaccinated as we travel to Europe on holiday and she will come too. I have this done in UK as it is only needed every two years – as opposed to annually in France. Yet local animals appear not have to have it….seems strange to me. Great to hear all the Vet comments on here and thank you!

  • pete says:

    Mary K
    The blog above clearly explains about the situation re: booster vaccinations. If you read the links to the WSAVA recommendations,
    you will find the information you need. It’s best to approach this subject from a scientific point of view, looking at large studies and data. I’m curious when you say you have seen “bad effects from boosters”. What do you mean? As my blog says, the reported incidence of adverse reactions is less than one in five thousand. You need to be careful what you do. Yes, I agree boosters against some diseases less often, but not against all diseases (eg Lepto if there is a risk)

  • pete says:

    Maria – I cannot answer all of your questions – there are many issues there. You need to find a vet who you can sit down with, to go through it all in detail. The issue of insurance and vaccine requirements is under review. In summary: no vaccines = bad. Too many vaccines: the jury is still out as to whether this genuinely causes a significant problem. “Fewer vaccines than have been given in the past” is probably the best approach.

  • pete says:

    Carole – rabies vaccination is a different issue because of the risk to humans from the disease. The vaccine lasts three years (on the data sheet) but they insist on vaccination every year in France because there is a relatively recent history of rabies there – I think the idea is that if people have to vaccinate every year, the entire population will be continually protected – if they went to every 3 years, some would slip through the net, going over the three years, and might become vulnerable again.

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