6 min read

Vaccines and Autoimmune Disease in Dogs: What to Know


By Tim Falk

Published: 09/09/2022, edited: 09/09/2022

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Meet Ferris, a 3-year-old Pomeranian with a playful temperament and a gorgeous smile.

In October 2020, Ferris was diagnosed with encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, and this cute canine has many special care requirements to manage the resulting neurological symptoms. 

But while this serious diagnosis came as a major shock to Ferris’ dog mom Megan Crowley, Growth Marketing Specialist at Wag!, there was another surprise in store.

When Ferris’ vet, Dr. Christina Vitale DVM DACVIM, determined that the condition was the result of an autoimmune disease, she recommended that this cute pupper not be vaccinated. "Vaccination can stimulate relapse of his disease," says Dr. Vitale, which could be fatal.

So while most of us are encouraged to immunize our pups against a range of potentially deadly diseases, Ferris is unable to receive the life-saving protection offered by vaccines. 

But what do vaccines have to do with autoimmune diseases in dogs? And how can you protect your unvaccinated dog against disease? Keep reading to find out.

pomerian dog standing behind a navy blue steel dog bowl displaying the wag and yeti brand logos

Taking care of Ferris

Because Ferris is unvaccinated, this cuddly Pomeranian has to live a fairly secluded life. He was vaccinated against rabies before he developed encephalitis, and the 3-year vaccine is still effective, so he is protected against rabies.

However, to avoid coming into contact with other diseases, Ferris isn’t allowed to walk on the grass or sidewalks in public spaces, so Megan has to carry him. He also needs to steer clear of crowds, and he isn’t allowed to go to the dog park or spend time at doggy daycare.

Megan says she doesn’t trust anyone except herself and her partner to watch Ferris because he requires so much care, and he can also be somewhat unpredictable. He can’t be on furniture like couches or stairs because he becomes disoriented and falls or injures himself.

But Megan does her best to give Ferris a good quality of life while also keeping him safe. She plans playdates with close family members whose dogs are fully vaccinated and not a risk to Ferris’ health, ensuring that he gets much-needed socialization.

She also takes him for walks in secluded areas very close to her home — there’s a particular spot behind Megan’s apartment building that Ferris is always “next-level happy” to visit. And while Ferris is quite timid and has some socialization issues, he’s still a happy, loving dog who enjoys living as full a life as possible. 

Unexpected challenges

Aside from his health issues, Megan has faced other challenges while caring for Ferris, like moving in to a new pet-friendly apartment.

"[My partner and I] toured the space, worked hard to beat out 7 other families for the space, and had an in-person coffee date with our landlord," recalls Megan. "We both felt confident that this arrangement would be great and excited for the new journey in a new place."

But when the landlord requested Ferris' microchip and vaccination info, Megan panicked a little.

"I knew that Ferris was not up to date on a few vaccines due to his current treatment. I wanted to get the vaccine record from the primary care vet to see if [the landlord] would be okay with the ones he was missing."

Unfortunately, the process wasn't as straightforward as Megan had been led to believe.

"I ran to the place I always go when I need an answer: Google! But there weren't any real sources of information on this topic. I saw some small sliver on some forum about getting a 'waiver' from your vet. This added a whole level of stress to moving (an already stressful process)."

So she emailed Dr. Vitale, Ferris' neurologist, who supplied a letter confirming the pup's vaccination status:

veterinary waiver letter for dog who can't get vaccinated screenshot

Fortunately, Megan's landlord accepted the letter, and she and her family were able to move in to their new home.

Megan shares her story to educate other pet parents like her who are navigating these challenges with little guidance. "Thankfully, in my case, accommodations were able to be made, but I imagine somewhere out there, there's a building manager that denied someone living in their complex due to their dog's health concerns."

Are vaccines linked to autoimmune disease?

Vaccinating your dog is the safest and most effective way to protect your dog against a host of deadly diseases. Unvaccinated dogs also have higher vet care costs, so there are plenty of good reasons why vaccination is a crucial area of canine healthcare.

However, some studies and anecdotal reports have suggested that vaccines could be a contributing factor behind autoimmune diseases in dogs, which occur when the body mistakenly attacks healthy cells. 

For example, a 1996 study of 58 dogs with immune-mediated hemolytic anemia (IMHA) found that 26% of the dogs had developed IMHA within a month of being vaccinated. The American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA) Vaccination Guidelines also report that, from an immunological point of view, it’s theoretically possible that vaccines can cause immune-mediated disease. 

However, those guidelines go on to state the following: “While vaccination has been anecdotally linked to immune-mediated disease in dogs, definitive studies demonstrating a clear cause-and-effect relationship have not been published.”

This roundup of adverse reactions to vaccination found that the suggestion that vaccination causes autoimmunity is “almost certainly false.” And rather than having a single cause, autoimmune diseases are likely the result of many contributing genetic, environmental, and immune system factors. So, for most dogs, the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any potential risks.

But that’s not the case for dogs that have previously been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, like Ferris. The AAHA Vaccination Guidelines suggest that there is a risk of booster vaccination reactivating their autoimmune disease, so the best approach for these dogs may be to steer clear of future shots.

yellow and white chihuahua dog sitting on a veterinary exam table

How to keep your unvaccinated dog safe from disease

What can you do to protect your dog if they’re unable to be vaccinated? Here are some simple tips.

Work with your vet

If your vet has decided not to vaccinate your pet, it’s essential that you work with your vet to develop the best possible plan to look after your pup’s health. Central to this will be ensuring that they don’t come into contact with unvaccinated dogs, so things like dog park visits are off the table.

Regular vet visits and antibody testing

Regular check-ups are an important protective measure, and your vet will use these visits to test your dog’s immunity. Titer testing allows your vet to take a blood sample and test the level of antibodies your dog has against diseases like distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus-2, assessing how much protection they have.

Ask lots of questions

Megan says you should also never be afraid to ask as many questions of your vet as possible. Finding out you can’t vaccinate your pet is confusing and even quite daunting, so rely on your vet’s expert advice to help understand how you can care for your fur-baby. For example, where can and can't you take your dog? Are there medications your pup should avoid? What else can you do to keep them safe from disease?

Socialize your pup safely

Next, join or create a group of “safe” pups so your pet can socialize. Ask your friends and family members about their dogs’ vaccination and health status, or look for Facebook or meetup groups in your neighborhood for dogs with similar needs.

Let them have fun

Remember, while your pup needs protecting, they also need to be given chances to enjoy just being a dog. Even if they’re not allowed to visit public spaces, find ways to bring joy into their life with fun play sessions, training that stimulates the mind, and play dates with “safe” dogs.

Get pet insurance

Finally, Megan has one other all-important piece of advice for parents of dogs that can't be vaccinated: don’t hesitate to get pet insurance. She waited a whole year after getting Ferris before deciding to insure him, and his encephalitis diagnosis came 2 days before the end of his policy waiting period. As a result, the cost of his expensive veterinary treatment isn’t covered. So if you’re welcoming a new pet into your family, don’t put off shopping for the right pet insurance coverage.

Related: 5 Real Stories that Prove Pet Insurance is Worth It

One treatment session for Ferris costs $800.

And his humans are forced to pay 100% out of pocket. Take Megan's advice, and don't hesitate to protect your pup! Compare plans from leading insurers today.

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© 2023 Wag Labs, Inc. All rights reserved.