What Vaccines Does My Dog Really Need?

Ask a Vet
What Vaccines Does My Dog Really Need?

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the veterinary profession in ways none of us predicted. Not only were pet owners forced to comply with the awkwardness of curb-side medicine, but the shelter-in-place mandates detonated an explosion of pent-up demand for new puppies. Now don’t get me wrong—having a clinic schedule full of adorable baby dogs certainly contributed to a bump in job satisfaction for my co-workers. We stocked the refrigerator with vaccines in response to the puppy boom, hoping to meet demand as the rest of our inventory slipped into perpetual backorder.

Veterinary medicine has stayed mostly immune to the vaccine skepticism that’s bubbled up during the pandemic. However, these initial puppy vet visits now certainly involve a more thorough explanation as to what’s necessary and why.

Perhaps the best way to break down vaccines is to lump them into two main categories: optional and mandatory. For the optional group, consider your dog’s risk for infection and your comfort level with potential side effects. The latter category contains vaccines that you should view as non-negotiables. This set of immunizations prevents diseases that carry significant health risks to your dog or humans. Since I can’t understate their importance, let’s dive into the details of this group first.

Mandatory Vaccines One of the most frustrating parts of my job is watching animals succumb to the vicious grip of preventable disease. There are still a few cases that haunt me, not only for the agony that the patients endured before slipping into death but for the mere fact that the suffering could have easily been prevented. Here’s how to help me and other vets ward off an unnecessary medical disaster.

The most common vaccine you’ll encounter in dogs is the DA2PP vaccine, which is an essential, life-saving immunization. The acronym represents a variety of viral diseases targeted in each vial. Most dog owners will have some name familiarity with the D (distemper virus) and one of the Ps (parvovirus or “parvo”). Both are nasty diseases that are frequently fatal, highly infectious, and—in the case of parvo—ubiquitous in the environment. The germaphobes among may cringe to learn that, even as you read this article, you’re essentially awash in parvovirus.

Puppies should receive three doses of the vaccine, spaced three to four weeks apart, between six weeks and four months of age. Booster the vaccine a year later, then annually or every three years thereafter, depending on your vet’s recommendation. Vaccine reactions to the DA2PP shot are rare, and it’s astonishingly effective at preventing the disease if administered on the recommended schedule. While breakthrough infections do occur, very few veterinarians can point to a case of parvovirus in a fully vaccinated dog.

If financial limitations prevent you from having a veterinarian administer this vaccine, by all means, channel your inner DIYer, head to your local farm-and-feed retailer, and pick one up. I’m in favor of a well-executed series of at-home jabs if it means never treating another parvo puppy.

The rabies virus vaccine is another non-negotiable immunization that not only protects your dog from a fatal disease but serves as a public health effort to prevent transmission to humans. Yes, there are indeed places on this planet where dogs spread rabies to humans, despite what a few vocal vaccine critics have espoused in my clinic.

Not only are you legally required to comply with vaccinating your dog against rabies for the sake of humankind, consider it an insurance policy against a great deal of heartache and legal headache should your dog bite a person. Sure, it’s unlikely to happen, but the bite protocol for a dog without a current rabies vaccine can include long periods of isolation or, at worst, euthanasia. It’s the only vaccine that requires administration by a veterinarian, but fortunately, most clinics keep the rabies immunization affordable to incentivize compliance.

Optional Vaccines This list is long and variable depending on where you live and what activities you enjoy with your dog. With these immunizations, I offer clients my best recommendations but respect their decisions to delay, space out, or outright refuse them.

Highest on my list is the Lepto vaccine, which performs a reasonably good job of protecting against this waterborne bacteria (Leptospira sp.) that can wreak havoc on the liver and kidneys of affected animals. While the breadth of the vaccine’s coverage is debatable, I feel like just about any dog that spends time outdoors should add this shot to their portfolio.

This vaccine in particular receives the most pushback from owners. In particular, it’s prominent among those who have acquired puppies from breeders who continue breathing life into antiquated stories of adverse Lepto vaccine reactions. Undoubtedly, I’ve seen patients with localized vaccine reactions to the injection, just as I have with any other immunization. I’ve also witnessed several unvaccinated dogs succumb to Leptospirosis, and I’d gladly endure a day or two of discomfort to prevent going out that way.

Other optional vaccines include those to protect against canine upper respiratory complex, referred to colloquially as kennel cough. While the immunization is standard issue in shelters, its efficacy is debatable because the disease can arise from a variety of pathogens outside the spectrum of vaccine coverage.

I don’t worry about serious disease in unprotected but otherwise healthy dogs in home environments. Even if they contract kennel cough, in most cases their symptoms resemble little worse than a common cold. My own dogs have been immunized and still came down with kennel cough while being boarded. Other than a hoarse bark, neither slowed down for a moment. While you may feel inclined to skip this one, keep in mind that some kennels, trainers, or boarding facilities will require you to comply with this vaccine to use their services.

Lyme and canine influenza vaccines rank lower on my recommended list. However, their applicability for your dog and geographical area may warrant a frank discussion with your veterinarian. I tend to focus primarily on tick prevention rather than immunization for dogs in Lyme-endemic areas, as the efficacy of a vaccine is a point of debate among many of my colleagues. A few hotbeds of canine influenza surface annually, and while not widespread, they justify an honest risk assessment if your travels include these areas.

Keep it Civil Instead of merely seeding frustration on both sides, there’s an opportunity to engage in some civil discourse regarding vaccines. With the exception of the mandatory vaccinations above, there’s really no one-size-fits-all formula for every dog and lifestyle.

Today’s dog owners have adopted a more vested interest in the health of their pets, including what they put in the food bowl or inject into their bodies. This evolution in the human-animal bond should serve as cause for celebration between dog owners and veterinarians rather than a declaration of war.

Despite an effort to drive a wedge between you and your vet, the burgeoning volume of misinformation and fear-mongering online has fostered more confusion than anything else. As a dog owner and avid hunter, I can relate to the majority of my clients who simply seek veterinary advice to navigate the muddied waters.

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