It’s not a shot in the dark. In fact, the importance of vaccinating your pet is as plain as day.
Just ask Dr. Lois Palin, VMD, of Doylestown Veterinary Hospital, who views vaccinations “as an essential component of preventive health” for our dogs and cats.
Over the years, vaccinations have significantly reduced the morbidity and mortality rates of our pets. They play a pivotal role in controlling infectious diseases in the pet population and protect against zoonotic diseases that could be transferred to humans. But understanding the what, when, and how of pet vaccination can be tricky for first-time and long-time pet owners.
Understanding Core and Non-Core Vaccines
Pet vaccines, Dr. Palin explains, are primarily classified as “core” and “non-core,” with each group tailored to the animal’s specific needs and risks.
Core vaccines, she notes, are essential for all pets, irrespective of their lifestyle.
For dogs, these core vaccines include:
- DAPP (Distemper, Adenovirus, Parvovirus, and Parainfluenza): A combination vaccine that protects against several serious diseases.
- Rabies: Required by law due to the severity of the disease and its zoonotic (transmittable to humans) nature.
For cats, core vaccinations include:
- Rabies: Just like dogs, vaccinations are a must for our feline friends – even those who stay indoors.
- FVRCP: This vaccine protects against multiple upper respiratory diseases, including:
- Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis: Caused by feline herpesvirus 1, leading to respiratory infection.
- Calicivirus: A virus that can also cause respiratory infections in cats.
- Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper): Caused by feline parvovirus, it can result in severe gastrointestinal illness.
According to Dr. Palin, some debate surrounds the classification of the Feline Leukemia (FeLV) vaccine and whether it is considered “core” or “non-core.” Regardless, it is frequently recommended for kittens younger than one year, due to potential outdoor exposure.
“It provides some protection in case that happens,” says Dr. Palin. “And then that conversation can be continued when the kitten is rechecked at its one-year annual exam.”
Non-core vaccines, on the other hand, are recommended based on a pet’s lifestyle, geographic location, and risk of exposure:
For dogs, these vaccines include:
- Leptospirosis: Increasingly seen in certain regions, this vaccine protects against a potentially severe bacterial infection that targets the kidneys.
- Bordetella: An important consideration for social dogs, this vaccine protects against a bacterium that is associated with respiratory disease in dogs –.
- Lyme Disease Vaccine: Geographically dependent, this vaccine is particularly critical in areas with high tick populations.
- Canine Influenza: For dogs at risk of contracting dog flu.
- Rattlesnake Toxoid: Though not a huge concern in Bucks County, PA, this vaccine is common in areas where the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake is a concern.
Cats have far fewer non-core vaccinations in their queue, limited mainly to the aforementioned Feline Leukemia (FeLV), administered to cats who spend time outdoors and/or may come into contact with other infected felines.
Having the Important Discussions
Dr. Palin emphasizes that some traditionally non-core vaccines, like Lyme or Leptospirosis, are being considered more “mandatory” in certain situations.
“We’re seeing increasing prevalence of Leptospirosis, whereas maybe 10-15 years ago, we didn’t worry about it so much,” Dr. Palin says. “We’re seeing that disease more. So that is certainly a conversation we have with clients now.”
Such gray areas make annual veterinary exams increasingly critical.
“What a pet needs at various stages of their life can change,” Dr. Palin notes. “Maybe they’ve been traveling or have started going to daycare or are being boarded. What they need over time may have shifted.”
Veterinary visits offer opportunities to evaluate any changes to lifestyle or risk factors and adjust vaccination schedules accordingly.
When to Vaccinate
“Puppies and kittens start their first vaccines around 8 weeks of age,” Dr. Palin says.
On average, new pet owners should expect vaccinations every 3-4 weeks, spaced out to avoid overburdening the animal’s immune system, and are timed to coincide with the waning of maternal antibodies around 16 weeks of age.
Dr. Palin stresses the importance of this period. “When those [maternal antibodies] go away, we know that the puppy or kitten is going to have a robust immune response to the vaccine we are giving.”
Other Things to Consider
Of course, some animals cannot get vaccines for one reason or another – as a result of health problems, allergic reactions, or other concerns.
Dr. Palin encourages pet owners to have an open dialogue with their vets about vaccinations and mentions alternatives like titer testing for pets with health issues or previous adverse reactions.
“These tests are going to check if antibody levels from previous vaccines are considered protective so that the animal is still immune to those diseases.”
Regarding adverse reactions, Dr. Palin notes some minor side effects are to be expected.
“It is not unusual or considered abnormal for a dog or a cat to be a little lethargic or maybe even run a little bit of a low-grade fever following vaccination,” she says. However, she warns that serious allergic reactions, though incredibly rare, can occur.
“Typically, a reaction would happen within 1-2 hours of getting the vaccine,” Dr. Palin explains, with symptoms including.
- Facial swelling
“There are also very, very rare instances where animals can have an anaphylactic reaction to a vaccine,” she says, which would cause them to collapse and go into shock.
“Again, this would happen very quickly, and I can’t emphasize enough how rare this is,” Dr. Palin continues. Even mild reactions, she adds, such as facial swelling or hives require veterinary intervention, whether at your regular office or an emergency clinic.
Ultimately, vaccinations play a nuanced yet crucial role in our pets’ health. Their importance cannot be overstated, and the benefits—to the pet and the community – far outweigh the unlikely risks.
Dr. Palin offers a practical piece of advice for pet owners who may be apprehensive about vaccinations: “Have a conversation with your veterinarian, not Dr. Google,” she says. “Remember, these vaccines are important for your pet’s health and for yours, as well.”