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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.

Holiday Time for Pets.

At this time of year many people are planning their summer holidays, and so need to make arrangements for their pets too. Some people use their family, friends or pet-sitters to care for their pets in their own home; others prefer to use a boarding service, either in a home setting or a kennels or cattery. The choice is a personal one and depends on the services available in the area. As pets are members of the family, it is important to make arrangements that you are happy with. Whichever type of service you decide to use, there are several ways in which you can help to make it a happy experience for your dog or cat: 1. Start when your pet is young. Puppies and kittens take new experiences in their stride. If it is too late to do this, or if your pet seems particularly shy, start with short stays and build up before a 2 or 3 week holiday. Most well-socialised pets will enjoy their holidays, allowing their owners to relax and enjoy theirs too. 2. Ask friends and neighbours to recommend a good place and then go and look round for yourself because not everyone likes the same things. Check for cleanliness and the general well-being of the pets. Respect the opening hours but beware of an establishment which does not allow inspection. If care is to be provided in your own home, interview the carer in advance, let them meet your pet(s) and check their experience and references. 3. Check that your chosen service offers everything you require. This could include grooming, collection and delivery, veterinary insurance, special diets etc. Check that your service carries proper insurance against unforeseen things like accident, escape, injury to third parties etc. If care is to be provided in your own home, check the position of your home insurance and be clear about whether the pet-sitter’s responsibilities include any elements of house-sitting, or if they are purely responsible for the pet(s). 4. Arrange necessary vaccinations in plenty of time and book early: good places will be fully booked at popular holiday times. If you go away frequently, make sure that the same service will be available all the year round so that your pet has a familiar routine on each occasion. 5. Discuss special needs or dietary requirements and medications at the time of booking. If your pet has a medical condition such as diabetes or epilepsy, it is particularly important that your chosen carer has the experience to deal with it. Make sure any tablets needed are clearly labelled, preferably in their original containers. 6. Ask if some of your pet’s familiar belongings can accompany them if they are not remaining in their own home. Bedding and bowls may not be accepted for hygiene reasons so ask what would be best to take.
It’s best to keep suitcases out of sight until cats and dogs have gone on holiday
It’s best to keep suitcases out of sight until cats and dogs have gone on holiday
7. If transporting your dog or cat, they may travel better on an empty stomach. Keep your cat in overnight the night before so that it cannot go missing, and provide a litter tray.
8. To avoid stress, try to pack AFTER the pets have gone if they are going away from home. 9. Try to take a relaxed attitude yourself, as your pet will quickly pick up on your mood. If you find it stressful to take your pet to a sitter or a kennel or a cattery, you will make them anxious and it will take longer for them to settle. Perhaps another member of the family could deliver them for you. If your dog trots off happily with his/her carer without a backward glance and your cat settles in without any problems you will know that all your planning and preparation has been worthwhile. They will still be delighted to see you when you get home. Enjoy your holiday!
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What is Kennel Cough?

[caption id="attachment_101" align="alignright" width="284" caption="Dogs can pick up kennel cough playing in the park  as well as in kennels."]dogs_playing[/caption] As a boarding kennel owner and a vet, I am often asked about this illness. From my point of view it has an unfortunate name, which implies that it only occurs in kennels. In fact an outbreak can occur in any area, and because it spreads rapidly, sooner or later an infected dog is bound to enter the kennels. Outbreaks are more common in the summer months, but there have been several cases in my area recently. Perhaps the mild autumn we have had has provided the right conditions for spread. Kennel Cough is a contagious illness of dogs, the main symptom of which is coughing. It should correctly be called Infectious Canine Bronchitis, or Infectious Canine Tracheobronchitis, but it is often known as Kennel Cough because of the fact that it spreads most readily when dogs are in close contact with each other. As well as in kennels, this would also occur at dog shows, training classes, veterinary surgeries, grooming parlours and many popular exercise places eg parks, beaches etc. The infection is spread by air-borne droplets, like colds and flu in humans. Another similarity with flu in humans is that there are many different strains of infection, making it difficult to prevent entirely by vaccination. One of the most common forms of kennel cough is caused by Bordatella Bronchiseptica, but a mixture of both bacteria and viruses may cause it. These agents cause irritation to the lining of the dog’s trachea (windpipe) and upper bronchi. The period between exposure to infection and developing symptoms (the incubation period) is often fairly long, sometimes up to 2 weeks. The first symptom is usually a dry, harsh cough which may end in retching and will probably sound as if something is lodged in the dog’s throat. Some dogs will be very well apart from a cough, but others may develop a temperature, a runny nose, appear lethargic or go off their food. Rarely there are other symptoms such as diarrhoea or vomiting. Usually the infection is not life-threatening but it can be a nuisance, and it may take several weeks to clear up completely. As with most illnesses, it is more likely to be a problem in older dogs, especially if they have pre-existing heart or lung problems. If the infection is very mild, treatment may not be necessary. More usually, affected dogs will need to see their vet to distinguish the condition from other types of cough (such as heart conditions, foreign bodies, bronchitis, or more rarely, lung tumours). Treatment for kennel cough might include antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. There is no specific treatment for the viruses involved, but any secondary bacterial infection would be helped by antibiotics. Responsible owners will then take steps to keep their dogs away from others to prevent spread, although there is nothing you can do to stop spread during the incubation period before you know that your dog has the infection. It would be unfair to blame the kennels if your dog does pick this up during a stay as a boarder, as there is little the kennels can do to prevent infection spread in the air. An infected dog will have brought the infection in before its owner or the kennel owner was aware that it was infected. The risk is similar to that of catching a cold or flu from another guest while on holiday: unfortunate but not the fault of the hotel! However, it is always a good idea to inform a kennels, grooming parlour etc if your dog develops this condition after a visit. [caption id="attachment_96" align="alignleft" width="210" caption="Kennel Cough Vaccine with applicator"]Kennel Cough Vaccine with applicator[/caption] There is a kennel cough vaccination which can be given to dogs, and although it cannot prevent all cases, it will reduce the likelihood and possibly the severity of cases in an outbreak. The vaccine is a small volume of liquid administered by the vet into the dog’s nostril using a syringe with a special applicator on the end. Most dogs accept this fairly easily although some do dislike having it administered. Firm but kind restraint by a veterinary nurse will usually allow the vaccination to be given without too much fuss. The first vaccines were given every six months, but more recent ones have been shown to work for twelve months so only need to be given annually. It may not be advised to give it at the same time as the routine annual injections, but your own surgery can advise you about this. Boarding kennels will usually insist on vaccination to protect all their boarders, and it would also be advisable to have your dog vaccinated against kennel cough if you are intending to go to dog shows or if they have medical problems as mentioned above. Always check with your own veterinary surgeon, who knows your dog’s medical history, if you are not sure. Jenny Sheriff BVM&S MRCVS If you are worried that your dog may have kennel cough use the interactive symptom guide to find out what you should do.