Due to COVID, we’ve all heard about vaccines nonstop for the past couple of years. You probably received certain vaccinations as a child, and may have received a booster for certain diseases as an adult. Under no circumstance, did you go get a measles or mumps vaccine every year of your life. It’s just not necessary based on the effectiveness of the vaccine.
When COVID came along, you probably thought about whether the COVID vaccination made sense for you, whether you needed or wanted a booster, and the statistics around how effective the COVID vaccine is. For some of us, it was surprising to learn that the COVID vaccine may help you avoid serious illness, but not necessarily avoid illness all together.
Finally, If you’re not traveling overseas, you probably never had a doctor suggest that you be vaccinated for typhoid or yellow fever because you have almost no risk of getting those diseases in the United States.
Have you paid as much attention to what your dog is getting vaccinated against and how often? You should! Your dog’s health and well-being depends on it. There is a lot of information out there about vaccinations. Some reliable, some not. I’ve studied the issue for some time, and have some good practical advice for you, as well as some tips on what you need to discuss with your vet.
Other than “core vaccines,” what vaccines your dog gets should be based on where you live and your lifestyle.
In the United States, there are a few “core” vaccines that most dogs get when they’re puppies, including parvovirus, adenovirus, and distemper. (Whether, when and how to effectively vaccinate puppies is the subject of some disagreement among vets. The common practice is to repeatedly vaccinate against those diseases, however, because they are widely present and can be very deadly.) Depending on where you live, there are other vaccines that may or may not be appropriate, such as lyme disease, canine influenza, etc.
Just because a vaccine exists doesn’t mean your dog should get it. Talk to your vet about what vaccines he/she is recommending and why. How effective are the vaccines? What is the science about how long they last? What is the incidence of that disease in the area where you live? Are those diseases lethal? What is your particular dog’s risk of exposure based on lifestyle? What are the pros and cons? Remember, vaccines stimulate the immune system of your dog. That should be done only when truly necessary to prevent a significant possible harm.
Dogs don’t need to get vaccinated every year for their entire life against anything. Period.
It’s a tragedy that it was ever the custom, and yearly vaccination was never based on science. So, if you’re bringing your dog to the vet for shots every year, you need to talk to your vet about why. There’s no credible data your vet can give you showing that annual vaccination for core diseases is necessary. Please go to the vet every year for preventive care, but don’t sign up for annual vaccination. If your vet resists alternatives, like a titer test, then you need to think about changing vets.
How do I know if my dog needs a vaccine?
Puppy vaccinations are a complex subject; but once your dog has had puppy shots, there is a very simple way to know if your dog needs to be vaccinated for core diseases as an adult: a titer test. This simple blood test measures your dog’s immunity to parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus, and rabies. The blood test might be slightly more expensive than vaccinations, but it doesn’t need to be done every year if your dog shows abundant immunity; it is usually recommended every three years. (Note that a rabies vaccine is often required by law regardless of immunity levels.)
The titer tests can accurately tell you if your dog has enough immunity to the disease to avoid infection. Titer tests are not done for the optional/regional vaccines both because the necessary immunity levels are not always well established and because many of those vaccines don’t prevent disease, just reduce lethality. I would never revaccinate an adult dog that has sufficient immunity according to a titer test. Vaccination in such a situation is completely unnecessary and potentially harmful.
Rabies is the only vaccine that many states require; some don’t require even that.
I don’t know of any state that requires your dog to be vaccinated against parvovirus or any disease other than rabies. Rabies vaccine laws vary from state to state and are sometimes based more on fear of rabies than science. For example, there is no difference in the one-year and three-year rabies vaccine. The contents of the bottle are exactly the same. One is labeled to expire in a year; the other is labeled for three. If you’re even a day late getting a rabies vaccination, in some states, you’re required to vaccinate again in a year, rather than three, because technically your vaccine expired. I didn’t say your dog doesn’t have sufficient immunity to rabies, just as a legal matter, the vaccine expired! One way to avoid over vaccinating your dog is to be sure that you know the local law about rabies vaccination and don’t be late getting it.
One final note. Vaccination is not benign. It stimulates the immune system and teaches the body to fight a particular virus or bacteria. That can be great. But if your body is currently fighting cancer, you may want to think twice about diverting the immune system’s attention from cancer to parvovirus. For that reason, I never vaccinated my dogs against anything again if they had cancer. Also, an old dog that rarely sees other dogs is at a very low risk of getting any disease. Your dog’s situation is unique to them. Please raise the issue with your vet about what is truly necessary before vaccinating your dog against anything as an adult.