4 Reasons You Shouldn’t Vaccinate Your Dog or Cat Yourself

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM
By Rhiannon Koehler, DVM on Dec. 4, 2023

When money is tight, pet parents may think vaccinating their own pet themselves (without a vet) is a good way to save a few bucks while still making sure their pet is safe from deadly infectious diseases. While we commend pet parents for wanting to keep their pets protected, having your veterinarian provide this wellness service is the best choice for your canine companion or feline friend.

Why Do People Try to Vaccinate Pets Without Vets?

Saving money is one of the primary reasons people try to vaccinate their own pets. Buying a vaccine over the counter and administering it on your own means no service fee for a veterinarian. For pet parents who have multiple pets at home, especially breeders, this can be quite a tempting cost-saving measure.

For other pet parents, the decision to vaccinate their own pets comes down to convenience. Some dogs and cats become stressed at the veterinary clinic. If the pet parent has multiple pets on the same vaccine schedule, they may not want the hassle of loading up multiple pets and traveling to the clinic.

Some pet parents may be concerned about the dosing of vaccines. They may purchase vaccines so they can give their pet a smaller amount than the recommended dose. This is dangerous and may impact the efficacy of the pet’s vaccines. 

Why You Shouldn’t Vaccinate Your Dog or Cat on Your Own (Without a Vet)

1. The Importance of the Veterinary-Patient Relationship

Don’t underestimate the value of a good veterinary examination. During your pet’s vaccine appointments, the veterinarian will also perform a full physical examination. During the exam, your vet can also ensure there are no underlying health issues.

Your veterinarian is also qualified to create a customized wellness plan, which includes determining which vaccines your pet needs. While some vaccines, like rabies, are considered essential for all healthy dogs and cats, some recommendations are based on lifestyle. For example, your dog who regularly hikes outside with you or lives near a pond might benefit from a leptospirosis vaccine, while your couch potato dog may not need it.

Similarly, your adult cat who always stays inside and never gets boarded might not need a feline leukemia (FeLV) vaccine, while your indoor/outdoor cat could benefit tremendously from being vaccinated against FeLV.

If you’re choosing vaccines over the counter, you could miss out on the opportunity to protect your pet from specific diseases. Or you might give your pet a vaccine that isn’t necessary for them.

Veterinary clinics use software that tracks when pets are due for vaccines, so they can help you stay on top of your pet’s schedule. Tracking your pet’s (or pets’) vaccine schedules on your own can lead to missed or late doses, putting your pet at risk of contracting infectious diseases.

Additionally, some pets are not good vaccine candidates, such as pets with a history of an autoimmune disease like immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, a condition in which the immune system attacks the pet’s red blood cells. If you’re choosing to vaccinate your pet at home, you could potentially cause a fatal relapse in the autoimmune disease.

Finally, a rabies vaccine must be administered by veterinary staff. Many jurisdictions legally require that pets be kept up to date on rabies vaccination.

2. Adverse Reactions to Vaccines

Like almost all medical treatments, a vaccine does carry the risk of possible side effects. For most pets who experience side effects, these are minor. Mild side effects could include tenderness at the site of injection, mild swelling at the injection site, or feeling out of sorts for a day or two afterward. Some pets have allergic reactions such as hives or facial swelling, which are easily controlled with veterinary intervention.

Although serious side effects are very rare, they do occur. Occasionally, dogs and cats have a severe allergic reaction to vaccines called anaphylaxis. With anaphylaxis, the airway narrows, making breathing difficult, and the blood pressure drops rapidly. The pet goes into shock, which can quickly become fatal.

In the veterinary clinic, your vet can immediately respond to this reaction, and there is a better likelihood of a positive outcome. At home, your pet is unlikely to survive an episode of anaphylaxis.

3. Improper Storage or Handling of the Vaccine

Generally, vaccines must be stored in a temperature-controlled environment from the time they leave the manufacturer until they’re administered to the pet.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), refrigerated vaccines must be stored at specific temperatures within specific refrigerators. A lapse in temperature control could lessen the efficacy of the vaccine.

Your veterinarian knows how to store vaccines appropriately and regularly monitor the temperature. You cannot guarantee that the vaccines you’re purchasing over the counter, transporting home, and potentially storing yourself are being appropriately handled.

4. The Acceptability of Vaccination Record

Another important consideration is the acceptability of your pet’s vaccination record to other vendors. For example, many boarding, grooming, and daycare facilities require proof of vaccination by a veterinarian. At-home vaccines are not acceptable to many pet care facilities. Some cities and some landlords may also require proof of vaccination by a vet.

In some cases, if your pet has been vaccinated against a disease by a veterinarian but still falls ill, the vaccine company may help cover some or all your pet’s medical costs. But the vaccine coverage is only “guaranteed” when given by a veterinarian.

If you’re administering the vaccine at home, most companies will not cover medical costs if your pet contracts the disease. Vaccine failure is not common for most of the core vaccinations that dogs and cats get. However, a study indicated that 3.3% of dogs with canine parvovirus were vaccinated adults, indicating that some vaccine failures do occur.

The Importance of Vaccines for Dogs and Cats

Because vaccines have been effective in controlling infectious disease, some pet parents are left with a false sense of security. Their pet will be protected by herd immunity, right? Could parvovirus really infect my pup if other pups in the neighborhood are protected?

Vaccines are the single most effective way to protect your pet from infectious disease. Vaccines also serve to protect public health. The rabies vaccine helps protect not only dogs and cats from the rabies virus, but also humans. Similarly, the leptospirosis vaccine protects not just your pet, but your human family, too.

Even if you have a one-pet household and don’t go to dog parks, keep in mind that diseases can be transmitted by wildlife. If a dog drinks water contaminated by the urine of another dog or wildlife, such as stagnant water in a stream, they can contract leptospirosis.

Having vaccines administered by veterinary staff gives you confidence that the vaccine was handled properly, administered properly, and has the best chance of being effective.

Working With Your Veterinarian to Vaccine Your Pet

It’s OK if you shop around to find a veterinarian before selecting one. You’ll want to find someone who understands your lifestyle and your pet’s unique needs, as well as someone who is willing to talk to you about the pros and cons of different vaccines.

By working with your veterinarian, you can develop a vaccine schedule that is both convenient and effective.

Featured Image: FatCamera/E+ via Getty Images

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public...

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