Though there has been controversy surrounding vaccines for both humans and their beloved four-legged family members in recent years, experts say dog owners should educate themselves on the myths surrounding shots for dogs and continue making vaccinations part of their pet’s care regimen.
“The field of veterinary medicine has changed; the questions and concerns you’re asking your physicians are the same questions we’re getting now as vets—and that’s because dogs and cats are no longer livestock in most homes in America…they’re family,” explains Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club (AKC). “But I think people tend to forget that there was once an era when an entire dog population could be wiped out from a disease like distemper, which is now easily preventable by a vaccine.”
Vaccines for Dogs—Explained
Dr. Jessica Romine, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary
Partners in Southfield, MI, explains that vaccines for pets can be divided into “core” and “lifestyle” vaccines. Core vaccines are those that are strongly recommended for all dogs or cats, whereas lifestyle vaccines are more dependent on geography, age, and risk of exposure—and these are often the vaccines that are required for boarding or grooming.
According to Dr. Carolyn R. Brown, senior medical director of community medicine for the ASPCA, vaccines for canine parvovirus, distemper, canine hepatitis, and rabies are considered core vaccines, while non-core vaccines include Bordetella bronchiseptica, Borrelia burgdorferi, and Leptospira bacteria. “Vaccines help prevent many illnesses that affect pets. Vaccinating your pet has long been considered one of the easiest ways to help him live a long, healthy life,” she says.
According to Romine, rabies is a required vaccine in all dogs and cats, as it is a deadly neurological disease with no cure that is contagious to people. In the United States, both dogs and cats most commonly contract the disease from wildlife. There were 4,454 domestic animals diagnosed in the United States 2017, as well as two human cases, according to the CDC.
“Vaccinating your dog not only protects your pet, but also protects the community. The more dogs in a community that are vaccinated, the less likely that a wide spread disease outbreak will occur,” Brown adds. “Some of the diseases that dogs are vaccinated for, such as rabies and Leptospirosis, are zoonotic diseases…meaning that they can cause disease in people, too.”
Myths about Vaccines for Dogs
Even though most veterinarians strongly urge vaccination for the health and well-being of your pets, one of the most common misconceptions about vaccinations for dogs is that they can cause other illnesses. “Studies have been conducted, and are still ongoing, regarding vaccines causing more serious immune diseases including anemia, bleeding disorders, and white blood cell issues…but this link has not been established definitively in current literature,” Romine explains. Brown notes that in recent years, some pet owners have become worried that the controversy surrounding vaccinations for humans—for example, that they are linked to Autism—might extend to their pets.
“There’s been a lot of media attention to the anti-vaccination movement, particularly its role in the ongoing measles outbreak in the United States. Over the past few years, veterinarians have been noticing an uptick in the number of pets that are not being vaccinated, due to a similar anti-vaccination ideology,” adds Michael San Filippo, spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). “This is a dangerous belief. Pets that have not been vaccinated run the risk of becoming infected with a preventable disease and spreading it to other animals and in some cases, even people. We understand pet owner’s concerns about vaccination, but for the vast majority of pets, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Klein notes that while in the past veterinarians have been accused of over-vaccinating, in recent years veterinarians are following solid guidelines, such as those published by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), and are willing to work with pet owners on establishing a vaccine schedule that’s appropriate for each individual pet.
“One recent and well accepted movement in veterinary medicine is vaccinating less often, as research has shown that some vaccinations generally protect a cat or dog for a minimum of three years. Prior to this study, it was generally accepted practice to booster shots annually,” Brown adds. “It’s important for each pet owner to discuss their dog’s lifestyle and potential exposure to disease…and decide upon a vaccine program tailored to their needs.”
Another concern by owners of both cats and dogs are the potential side effects of vaccines. Romine explains that vaccines for dogs and cats have to go through the same rigorous testing and government approval as for human vaccines, and require the same level of safety reporting. The viruses and bacteria in vaccines always undergo major processing to avoid them causing the actual disease. Additionally, some vaccines, including Leptospirosis, some Lyme vaccines, and the injectable Bordetella are inactivated. “This ensures that the antigen is completely incapable of replicating, and so they are extremely safe,” she explains.
Another of the more common misconceptions about vaccines is that small dogs are more susceptible to side effects because of the dose in proportion to the size of the animal. “Similar to how a baby getting a vaccine for the first time or an adult getting a booster need the same dose, the immune system needs the same amount of stimulation to achieve good levels of protection—regardless of the size of the dog,” Romine explains. “Small breed dogs may be more expressive and/or show more mild reactions, but it’s not due to the size of the dose.”
Understanding the Risks
Immunizations stimulate an animal’s immune system in order to create protection from specific infectious agents, and Brown notes that this stimulation can sometimes lead to mild symptoms, ranging from soreness at the injection site to fever and allergic reactions, which is not unlike what can happen when infants or adults receive vaccines. Antihistamines can sometimes be administered to help ward off these types of reactions. “Can negative reactions happen? Absolutely. Do they happen frequently? No. And pet owners need to understand that this idea of dogs getting sick from vaccines is a myth,” Klein asserts.
Many of the diseases that dogs are vaccinated for are relatively common in the pet population, and may cause serious or life-threatening disease. “Because of the proven medical benefit, we recommend giving all puppies and kittens an introductory series of vaccinations and keeping all pets current on rabies vaccinations,” Brown concludes. “Any risk to the pet from the vaccination—with the most common risk being an allergic reaction—is far outweighed by the benefit of protecting the dog from the diseases.”