What You Need to Know About Vaccination Safety and Your Dog

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Most pet owners routinely vaccinate their pets every year. Is this necessary? Is it safe?

Most veterinarians will tell you that the vaccines we routinely use for our dogs to prevent diseases, such as rabies, distemper, and parvovirus have more benefits in protecting your dog from potentially deadly diseases then the risks associated with them, and that it is advisable to vaccinate your dog regularly. What is up for debate is how often our dogs need to be vaccinated.

It is recently being suggested by many veterinarians that dogs do not need to be boosted every year once their initial series of vaccinations has been received, but can get the boosters less frequently, which will prevent over-vaccinating. Since there are some risks associated with vaccinations, small though they may be, preventing unnecessary vaccination is advisable. Also, some optional vaccines that are commonly given, such as the kennel cough vaccine, may not be necessary depending on your dog's circumstances, and do not always work as well as expected depending on circumstances.

Because of risks associated with vaccinations, including allergic reaction, immune system compromise, and injury or infection at the vaccine site if improperly administered, it is important to determine which vaccinations your dog actually requires. Deciding how often to vaccinate, and when vaccinations are necessary is something you should discuss with your veterinarian.

Risk vs. Benefit

Because the diseases that routine vaccinations prevent can be so serious and deadly for dogs, it is usually advised that the minimal risks of vaccinations are outweighed by the benefits. Diseases like rabies are not only deadly for your dog, but can be deadly for other animals and people and vaccination is legally required in many places and situations. Parvovirus is another devastating gastrointestinal infection that can be fatal or permanently debilitating for your dog and can be prevented with vaccination. Vaccines to protect against these types of diseases are highly recommended.

You should, however, be aware of some of the risks associated with vaccinations before determining which vaccines to obtain, and how often to vaccinate your dog.

Reactions

Some dogs can experience minor reactions to vaccinations--these are usually not significant, and your dog will quickly recover. Mild reactions include, feeling sore, especially where the vaccination was administered, running a low-grade fever, and being slightly lethargic after receiving vaccinations.  

A more serious reaction that can occur is an allergic reaction to the vaccine or some component of the vaccine. These allergic reactions range from itching and hives, to swelling and vomiting, to anaphylactic reactions that interfere with your dog’s ability to breathe, and other vital functions. Serious allergic reactions are rare, and if present at a veterinarian's office when the reaction occurs, medication to counteract an allergic or anaphylactic reaction can be administered. If an allergic response occurs to a vaccination, you should discuss with your veterinarian how to proceed, or not, with future vaccinations.

Immune Function

Because vaccinations work by stimulating your dog’s immune system by introducing a small, usually inactive, sample of the disease causing agent to cause the immune system to produce antibodies for the disease, there is a risk of causing disorder to the recipient’s immune system. Vaccinations are designed to work to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies to the targeted disease, so if the dog is later exposed to the actual disease, they will already have the antibodies to fight the disease off, or at least will experience a much milder form of the disease. However, this engagement of your dog's immune system can result in immune system disorder, making your dog susceptible to other diseases and conditions if their immune system is overstressed or becomes disordered as a result of stimulation by the vaccine.

Dogs can develop an immune system disorder called immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, which may be contributed to by vaccine administration. Arthritis and other diseases related to immune system disorder may also be contributed to from administration of vaccinations. If your dog already has a medical condition or disease, vaccinating them may overtax their immune system and cause immune system impairment. If your dog has a compromised immune system, or a medical condition, you should discuss with your veterinarian whether it is advisable to proceed with vaccinations, as vaccinations may not be advisable for your dog until their health is restored.

Effectiveness

Some optional vaccinations, such as the kennel cough, or bordetella, vaccination are controversial and their effectiveness is sometimes questioned by pet owners and professionals. Many boarding kennels, grooming salons, and other places where large numbers of dogs congregate require the bordetella vaccine for dogs to be present. This vaccine is much like a doggy flu vaccine. But, like the flu vaccine, it is not always effective, as many agents both bacterial and viral, as well as stress, which compromises the immune system, are factors in contracting kennel cough. The vaccine may not be able to address all of these factors, and dogs may contract kennel cough in spite of being vaccinated.

Frequency of Vaccinations

Recently there have been a lot of questions raised as to whether dogs require vaccinations every year. It has been suggested that yearly vaccinations are not necessary, and that we have been over-vaccinating our pets. Unfortunately, there have not been clear studies to indicate what the minimum effective dosage would be for vaccines to prevent serious disease. You can discuss with your veterinarian what the minimal recommended vaccination schedule for your dog should be. It is possible to have blood titers done to measure your dog's antibody level to certain diseases. Although this does not always give an accurate picture of what their immunity is, it can be a good indicator of whether vaccination boosters are required and may be sufficient to meet requirements for vaccination imposed by many organizations.

On the whole, vaccinations for your dog are considered safe, with few, mild reactions occurring, and even fewer serious reactions occurring. The diseases they protect from are serious, life-threatening, and sometimes, as in the case of rabies, a threat to public health. The threat of the diseases vaccinated for are considered much more of a risk then the vaccinations themselves present. There are situations, however, when you should discuss the appropriateness of vaccinations with your veterinarian. If your dog experiences allergies, or has had an allergic reaction to a vaccine in the past, or if your dog suffers from a medical condition, disease, or immune system disorder, vaccinations may not be advisable until the condition can be addressed. Also, the frequency of vaccinations should be considered and discussed, as vaccinations can stress your dog's immune system, and they should be given based on the minimal effective dose schedule to prevent disease and protect immune system functioning.