Start a conversation about vaccination with a group of dog lovers and you open a can of worms! Everyone wants their pets to be as safe and healthy as possible, but with so many opinions and scare stories, what should you believe?
As a GP Vet, the first thing I would recommend is that EVERY dog should visit their vet at least once a year. This Annual Health Check should include a full physical check by the vet and gives you the opportunity to discuss preventative health, including vaccinations. Although nobody knows your dog better than you, vets can sometimes pick up heart murmurs, internal lumps, or even pain which your dog has been hiding.
Puppies are protected by maternal immunity until around 8-10 weeks, though this can be shorter if they were weaned early or lacking entirely if the mother was not vaccinated. First vaccinations against Distemper, Hepatitis, Parvovirus (DHP), and Leptospirosis are given at 6-8 weeks and again at 10-12 weeks. A full ‘booster’ is given at 1 year old. After this, most vets will only give the DHP part every 3 years. Leptospirosis vaccines only protect for around a year, so must be repeated once a year. Some dogs will be protected against Distemper, Hepatitis, and Parvovirus for longer than three years and many vets now offer a blood test to check if a dog has circulating antibodies to these diseases.
Vaccination and better general health of dogs means that we don’t see these diseases as often as in the past, but they are still out there. Parvovirus is the most common of these diseases and remains a big killer of puppies. Distemper is on the rise as dogs are imported from countries where the infection is endemic. It causes extreme joint pain and neurological signs; recovered dogs can be left with tremors and thickened foot pads. Leptospirosis is considered a core vaccine for the UK as the infection is present in wildlife such as rats and squirrels, farm animals, and streams and ponds. Leptospirosis can cause severe kidney and liver disease in dogs and is also transmissible to people (Weill’s Disease).
Optional vaccines include Kennel Cough, which is given as a drop up the nose. This reduces the risk of infectious coughs and may be recommended for dogs which go to kennels, groomers, dog walkers, training classes, or shows. Rabies vaccination is not required in the UK unless you plan to travel to Europe or beyond. Blood tests may be required to prove the rabies vaccination has created an immune response. Travelling dogs must have a rabies vaccination every three years.
Vaccinations are very safe, but they are designed to stimulate the immune system so mild reactions such as a lump at the injection site or being ‘off colour’ for 24 hours are normal. Just as people report they get flu after flu vaccination, some owners claim their dogs get sick after vaccines. Mild symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea are unlikely to be vaccine related, and a study showed no difference in illness after a vet visit for dogs which were vaccinated and dogs which attended for another reason. More serious reactions such as anaphylactic shock are very rare but usually happen while a pet is at the vets and respond well to treatment. In rare cases vaccines can trigger epilepsy or auto-immune disease in susceptible dogs. If you have concerns because related dogs have reacted badly to vaccines, please talk to your vet. Suspected reactions should always be reported to the manufacturer. Vaccines are only intended to be given to healthy dogs, so if your dog has a chronic illness you will need to weigh up the risks and benefits with your vet. Some medication will also make vaccines ineffective so make sure your vet is aware of all the medications your dog takes.
There are no effective alternatives to vaccination other than titre testings. Homeopathic nosodes have been shown not to protect against disease.