Jul 14 2012

Vaccinations – HELP!

If you have spent hours online researching “vaccinations for pets” but still cannot decide how your pet should be vaccinated, you are not alone. There are numerous diseases for which vaccinations are available for prevention. These vaccinations may be available in various formulations, and they can be administered according to various protocols. Many factors need to be considered when determining the appropriate vaccination schedule for an individual pet. These factors include age, past vaccinations, exposure to other animals, where they live, and where they travel. This creates much confusion among pet owners. Let me attempt to clarify some of this information for you.

Your veterinarian will determine the best vaccination protocol for your pet based on the above factors and the vaccination products that they have available. In most cases these decisions are based on revised vaccination guidelines published in 2006 (The American Association of Feline Practitioners Feline Vaccine Guideline: AAFP) and 2007 (The American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccine Guidelines: AAHA). These guidelines were established by a large group of world renowned Board Certified specialists in areas such as Immunology, Infectious Diseases, Epidemiology, Internal Medicine and more. A vast amount of research data, statistics, and other evidence was reviewed and critically analyzed by these groups to determine the most accurate and relevant vaccination guidelines for our pets. In response to this publication many of the vaccination companies worked to produce some new vaccination products, better suited to these new guidelines. They are used in conjunction with the most superior, preexisting products on the market. These vaccinations are currently available for use in North America. Now you and your veterinarian need to have a discussion about the factors relevant to your pet, and tailor the new guidelines to best meet your vaccination needs.

The AAHA and AAFP guidelines divide vaccinations into 2 groups – Core and Elective. Core vaccinations are those vaccines that every pet should receive, according to recommended protocols, regardless of their perceived risk. These core viruses are diseases that cause severe illness and often death. These viruses are under relative control in our community, but not eliminated. They will show up from time to time and we all hope it isn’t in our pet! This control can only be maintained if the majority of pets remain up to date on their vaccinations. It has been well demonstrated that as the percentage of the pet population that is vaccinated drops, these viruses resurge with vengeance. For dogs, Core Vaccinations include Rabies, Distemper, Adenovirus2/Hepatitis and Parvovirus. For cats they include Panleukopenia, Rhinotracheitis (Herpesvirus), Calicivirus and Rabies. Elective vaccinations are vaccines that your pet should receive if they have a reasonable risk of exposure to that virus. For Dogs, Elective vaccinations include Bordetella (Infectious Canine Cough), Parainfluenza, Leptospirosis, Lyme Disease, Canine Influenza and Western Diamondback Rattlesnake vaccine (thankfully not a risk in Canada!). For cats they include Feline Leukemia Virus, Chlamydia, Feline Bordetella, FIV and Virulent Systemic Calicivirus

So How Often Are Vaccinations Needed?

PUPPIES & KITTENS: While a pup or kitten nurses from their mother they receive life-saving antibodies through the milk, providing the mother has been appropriately vaccinated. These “maternal antibodies” help protect the babies during their first few weeks of life. Once they stop nursing these maternal antibody levels steadily fall to non-protective levels, leaving the youngster extremely susceptible to deadly viruses, typically by 8-12 weeks of age. Therefore it is very important that puppies and kittens start receiving vaccinations for core vaccines at 7 or 8 weeks of age (with the exception of Rabies which is not given until 12 or 16 weeks of age). Vaccines given any earlier are almost always ineffective as circulating “maternal antibodies” block the vaccination. For some individuals even the 8 week vaccination may be blocked, but there is no way to tell which need the 8 week vaccine and which do not, therefore they should all receive it. The vaccinations are then boostered at 12 and 16 weeks of age to stimulate the immune system to produce protective levels of antibodies. Elective vaccines may be started at any point during the core series, most require at least 1 booster 2-4 weeks later. A puppy or kitten will not have protective levels of antibodies until the entire series has been completed. Until completion youngsters should be kept close to home and avoid areas visited by other animals to prevent them from becoming ill.

ADULTS: All vaccinations should be repeated (or boostered) 1 year after the initial set. At this time your veterinarian will discuss with you if it is appropriate to start to introduce some core vaccines that will provide protection for up to 3 years in some cases. They will also discuss available elective vaccines to determine if your pet’s risk has changed since the previous year.Although a healthy immune system is perfectly capable of responding to multivalent vaccines (more than one vaccine given at the same time), many veterinarians will start to separate vaccine components (vaccine splitting) and rotate the years they are boostered. It is generally felt that by decreasing the vaccine load given at a single visit may further enhance the bodies’ response and, for some susceptible individuals, may decrease the risk of vaccine reaction.At these visits your pet will also receive a complete physical examination. Remember that our pets are aging more rapidly than us and the physical examination will often identify indicators of disease (ear infections, dental disease, cataracts/eye disease, heart or lung disease, skin/coat conditions, hormone disease, digestive disorders, masses, liver problems, musculoskeletal problems and weight concerns). Many things can change in a year, and early identification can often result in superior management or cure of these problems.

SENIORS: Yes, seniors need vaccinations too. Just like senior people, senior pets are usually at an increased risk and susceptibility to the type of infectious diseases we vaccinated against.

Vaccine Reactions

Just like ourselves, it is not unusual if a pet feels tired or has a poor appetite for a day or so after receiving vaccinations. This is NOT a reaction. True vaccination reactions are uncommon, but as with any medication, in people or pets, occasionally an individual may experience a reaction. Vaccine reactions can take different forms; intense itch, hives, swollen eyelids/muzzle, or vomiting/diarrhea. When a reaction occurs the symptoms usually develop within minutes or hours of receiving the vaccination. Although these reactions are typically minor, your pet should be examined by a veterinarian right away.In extraordinarily rare cases an individual could experience a serious or life threatening reaction. However, most veterinarians will pass their entire career without ever having a patient suffer a life threatening vaccine reaction, but they will see many pets suffer or die from viruses that could have been easily prevented by appropriate vaccination.


A titre is a blood test that measures the amount of antibodies produced by the immune system in response to vaccination. These measurements tell us if an individual has sufficient antibodies to fight off (prevent) a viral infection. Titre tests can be used to tell us if an individual requires a booster vaccination this year or if they are still protected by their antibodies. Sounds great! Why aren’t titre tests used more often you ask? There are a couple reasons: First, some vaccinations do not have a corresponding titre (ie. Adenovirus/Hepatitis, Rhinotracheitis) and therefore cannot be measured, Second, a specific titre test must be run for each vaccine component, Third, cost – each titre test costs anywhere from$60 – $300, multiplied by the number of vaccinations in question. Then you have to add the cost of the booster vaccination if the titre is low. That said, it is possible to use some of the less expensive titres to track immunity while simply vaccinating on schedule those that are costly or do not have available titre tests.

In summary, there are many different vaccination protocols because there are many different risk levels. If your veterinarian has not discussed your pet’s risk with you, ask them the next time you are in to review with you your pet’s vaccination protocol and risk level. They can let you know which vaccine products are available and make any necessary changes.

Please don’t be fooled – vaccinations are very important. We are all fortunate enough to live in a society with few life-threatening infectious diseases. The days of thousands of people sick or dying from Diphtheria, Polio, Mumps or Measles are events of generations long past thanks to the development and use of vaccinations. But these diseases are not gone, only 2 infectious diseases, Smallpox and Rinderpest, have been successfully eradicated by the use of vaccinations. The others simply don’t get a foothold in a society that maintains a certain level of vaccination of the people. You don’t have to look far, some third world countries, to see what life would be like without vaccinations. If we become lax about vaccinations, whether in pets or people, we will see the terrible diseases of the past return. So please do your part to keep the viruses at bay – Get your pet Vaccinated!

American Animal Hospital Association (AHAA) Canine Vaccine Guidelines – (revised 2007): the full text will be available at www.aahanet.org

American Association of Feline Practitioner (AAFP) Feline Vaccine Guidelines -2006; available at www.catvets.com

World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s Vaccine Guidelines – 2010; available at www.wsava.org

Article Prepared by: Dr. Claire Todd (Veterinarian)

Fonthill Animal Hospital


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