By Hanie Elfenbein, DVM
Pet vaccines. For most pet owners, they are something we do regularly but don’t think much about. As a veterinarian, however, vaccinations are something I am always thinking about. At the top of my mind is usually this: How can I best protect my patients while minimizing any risk of over-vaccinating or asking clients to spend money unnecessarily?
Pet vaccines are safe and I fully believe in them. My own dog gets more vaccines than my typical patient because of our lifestyle. He goes to daycare regularly, loves the dog park, goes hiking and comes to the clinic with me when I am at work. Each of these aspects of our lifestyle puts him at risk for particular diseases and I want to minimize that risk. I make decisions for his health based on extensive knowledge of the diseases I want to prevent and the vaccines I am administering. Vaccines are not a replacement for vigilance, but they are an important part of your pet’s healthcare.
Core Vaccinations Versus Lifestyle Vaccinations
Vaccines are separated into two main categories: core and non-core. Core vaccines protect dogs from diseases including rabies, distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus (also called hepatitis). For cats, core vaccines prevent diseases including rabies, viral rhinotrancheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia. These diseases have high fatality rates, are common in the environment and are easily spread between animals or to people. Rabies vaccinations are required for all dogs and cats in the mainland United States.
Non-core vaccines are also known as lifestyle vaccines because the choice to provide them to your pet is dependent on his or her particular risks. The diseases prevented by non-core vaccines tend to cause less severe symptoms, the disease organism may not be present in all areas or the disease is spread by a particular situation that does not apply to the majority of animals.
Vaccines are not immediately effective. They take approximately two to four weeks to reach full protection, so it is important to plan ahead to protect your pet. In addition, every animal is different and only your veterinarian who knows you and your dog or cat is equipped to discuss the nuances of whether to give a particular vaccine.
Lifestyle Vaccinations for Dogs
The following lifestyle, or non-core, vaccinations are generally recommended for dogs based on their environment and day-to-day activity:
Bordatella (Kennel Cough)
Bordatella bronchoseptica is the bacteria most commonly associated with the respiratory disease known as “kennel cough.” It is just one of many types of bacteria and viruses associated with respiratory infection in dogs. Some bordatella vaccines also vaccinate against associated viruses as well. Like the human flu vaccine, the bordatella vaccination does not prevent your dog from getting sick, it just decreases the severity and length of symptoms and lessens the likelihood that your dog will feel sick.
Kennel cough gets its name because it is easily transmitted in the air and therefore any indoor space dogs share, such as a kennel. Day care, dog parks and other places dogs congregate also increase your dogs’ risk of kennel cough. Dog breeds with short faces like, Bulldogs and Pugs, are at higher risk of developing kennel cough that becomes severe due to the shape of their nose and throat.
As more animals travel with their families, any indoor space has the potential to facilitate transmission of kennel cough. Any animal that travels should receive an annual bordatella vaccine. This includes service and support animals as well as show animals. In addition, cats in catteries or who participate in cat shows should also receive the bordatella vaccination.
Leptospirosis is a bacteria that spreads in water containing infected urine from wildlife including urban squirrels, raccoons and rats according to veterinarian and vaccinologist Dr. Dan Green. This means that even a dog who never wanders farther than his backyard for a potty break is at risk. I highly recommend this vaccine for all dogs who step outside.
Most cases of leptospirosis only cause mild signs and are easily treated with antibiotics. However, some dogs get very sick and even suffer kidney failure. Leptospirosis is zoonotic, meaning that it can be transmitted from animals to people.
The first time your dog is vaccinated against leptospirosis, the vaccine is given as a two-injection series approximately one month apart. After that, the vaccine is boostered annually. In many regions of the country, leptospirosis is included in the combination distemper virus-parvovirus vaccine.
Canine Influenza (Dog Flu)
The dog flu was first diagnosed in the United States in 2004, though it is possible that undiagnosed cases were present for several years before that. Symptoms of the dog flu may start similarly to kennel cough but then can become much more severe and necessitate hospitalization of your dog.
The flu pops up in different locations throughout the country with little advanced warning and no pattern. There are two known strains of the dog flu and it is impossible to predict which one will cause illness in any location or at any time. Some vaccines protect against only one of these strains while others are effective against both.
If your dog frequents places like day care or boarding facilities, you should consider vaccinating for the dog flu. Dogs who travel should be vaccinated both to protect themselves and to reduce the likelihood that they bring the flu back home to their neighbors after their trip. You should also vaccinate if your dog is one of the short-faced breeds at increased risk for respiratory infections.
Lyme Disease (Borrelia burgdorferi)
Lyme disease is transmitted by the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. In some regions of the country, such as the Northeast, the Lyme vaccine is considered core because of the high prevalence of the disease. If you live in one of the 14 states listed here, you should vaccinate your dog. If you live within the range of the black-legged tick but not a high-risk state, you should vaccinate your dog if your lifestyle suggests it.
While modern tick preventatives are very effective, they do not confer one hundred percent protection, especially since most of us are guilty of occasionally being late in giving the next dose. If your dog has frequent exposure to wooded areas, whether at your property line or on hunts or hikes, your lifestyle suggests vaccinating.
The first time your dog is vaccinated against Lyme disease, the vaccine is given as a two-injection series approximately one month apart. After that, your dog will be boostered annually as long as you continue to live in the territory of the ticks that carry the disease. Your dog should still receive tick protection regularly, as there are many other diseases carried by ticks.
Lifestyle Vaccinations for Cats
The following lifestyle, or non-core, vaccinations are generally recommended for cats based on their environment and day-to-day activity:
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV)
Feline leukemia is spread by saliva. This means even friendly contact between cats can spread the disease. In kittens, FeLV can cause severe illness including neurologic signs. Kittens with FeLV usually acquire the virus from their mother. Some kittens that are exposed to the disease do recover, but if that is your particular situation, it is very important to have an in-depth discussion with your veterinarian. In adult cats, FeLV is a horrible disease because it hides until your cat gets sick and then makes it very difficult or impossible to get your cat well again.
Because kittens are at especially high risk for the disease, all kittens should receive the booster (two-part) series starting at 9 to 12 weeks of age. The vaccine will need to be boostered annually if your cat has potential exposure, such as outdoor access. Cats in households that bring in new cats frequently, such as foster homes and catteries, should also be vaccinated.
Chlamydia (Chlamydophila felis)
Chlamydia causes respiratory disease in cats and, along with herpes, is thought to be the underlying cause of most upper respiratory infections in cats. Many cats are likely carriers, meaning the bacteria is in their body even if it is not causing signs. Because chlamydia can cause illness and is easily spread between animals it is recommended to vaccinate cats in catteries, breeders and shelters.
Vaccines That Are No Longer Recommended
Some vaccines fall into a third category, “not recommended.” These are vaccines that either have unproven effectiveness or safety or prevent diseases that generally don’t cause noticeable illness. These include the FIV (feline immunovirus) and FIP (feline infectious peritonitis) vaccines for cats, and giardia, coronavirus and rattlesnake vaccine for dogs. While this last vaccine may seem important, it is only effective against the venom from a particular species of snake and even then, the protection is incomplete. It is better to train your dog to avoid snakes through formal training available in most regions.
There are some situations where your dog or cat may need one of these vaccinations. It is best to discuss this with your veterinarian.