Is it Safe to Vaccinate your Dog?

Dog vaccine safety. needle and vaccine bottle

Dog Vaccines: You want the best for your dog, but advice can be conflicting.

Whilst your vet sends out an annual booster reminder card, you read on the internet that vaccinating every year is not healthy. Now you’re confused about what to do.

To alleviate that unease, here is a presentation of facts for and against vaccination, so you can make an informed decision.

The Courtroom of the Internet

When you search “Dog over-vaccination”, top of the list are eye-opening articles about the risks. These articles state vaccination has the potential to cause long term harm such as:

  • Respiratory disease
  • Infertility
  • Hypertrophic osteodystrophy (a bone disease affecting young dogs)
  • Polyarthritis (immune triggered joint inflammation)
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
  • Encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)

Whilst the ‘doubters’ talk as if these links is proven, in fact they are NOT. Whilst it is wise to ask questions, be cautious, and gather information, know that solid evidence proving cause and effect between vaccine and long term ill health is lacking.

The Facts about Vaccination Reactions

OK, so what do we know for sure?

Reactions to vaccines do happen and are known as “adverse” vaccine reactions. These can be divided into immediate, short, and long term issues.

a) Immediate

Some dogs have an immediate allergic reaction or ‘anaphylaxis’ to a vaccine and go into shock. This is potentially life-threatening but is mercifully rare. Anaphylaxis usually happens within minutes of vaccination, and can be treated with an injection of adrenaline.

The doubters argue the anaphylaxis is due to injecting foreign substances into the body. Whilst they have a point, it occurs because of the same mechanism that happens when people have a life-threatening allergy to peanuts or seafood. In short, the body has the potential to over-react to anything, including natural substances like food… and vaccinations.

b) Short Term Reactions

Yes, these do occur and include swelling at the site of the injection, mild fever, decreased appetite, and reluctance to move. This can occur within 2 – 3 days of vaccination.

Whilst no one wants to make their pet ill, this reaction is the body’s immune system registering the vaccine and producing protection against the disease. The effects are temporary, and treatable with an anti-inflammatory medicine.

c) Long Term Reactions

This is a grey area. Whilst the doubters cite many types of disease as a direct consequence of vaccination, this is not proven. However, to be fair this is difficult to prove one way or the other. For example, take the example of immune-mediated polyarthritis (an inflammatory joint disease) in Weimaranars.

Weimaranars are a breed prone to polyarthritis. Typically it afflicts dogs as young as 13 weeks of age. If a puppy had a vaccine at 12-weeks and developed polyarthritis one week later, could this be due to the vaccine?

The honest answer is it’s unlikely, but no one knows for sure. However, be wary of unfounded claims linking disease to vaccine because there could be other explanations such as genetic disease.

Why Vaccinate at All?

If you’re now thinking you’d rather avoid even the low risk of a reaction and avoid vaccinations altogether, it is good to remember why vaccines are important.

In dogs vaccines protect against disabling or life-changing diseases such as:

  • Parvovirus * : Causes haemorrhagic diarrhoea and damages the heart
  • Distemper * : Debilitating vomiting and diarrhoea, and survivors risk of seizures in later life
  • Leptospirosis *: Causing liver and kidney damage, and even sudden death
  • Canine Hepatitis * : Long term liver damage
  • Parainfluenza virus * : Viral pneumonia
  • Bordetella: One of the causes of ‘Kennel cough’
  • Rabies: Fatal and infectious to people.

Those marked * are routinely vaccinated against. If you have an “Aha!” moment, thinking “When was the last case of parvo in my area?” be aware we enjoy low levels precisely because widespread vaccination provides “herd immunity”.

Thus, if you are feeling smug because you never vaccinate and your dog has never been ill…if other owners followed your example this would change very quickly.

Back to Basics: How Vaccinations Work

Vaccines work by giving a small dose of a harmless version of the infectious agent. This primes the immune system to produce antibodies that fight the infection. The immune system’s memory bank can quickly produce plentiful antibodies in the face of ‘live’ infection.

The nature of the canine immune system means that immunity is not lifelong. This means a puppy that only receives a basic vaccine course is unlikely to be fully protected 13 months later. This is the reason for “booster” injections. Those top up doses re-prime the immune system.

What are the Alternatives to Annual Vaccination?

OK, you’re convinced for the need for an initial vaccination course, but yearly boosters?One way of checking if the dog is protected is to run a blood test looking at the levels of antibodies in the bloodstream. The drawback is this means the stress of a blood draw for the dog, plus it’s expensive.

Blood testing is an interesting option, but most owners rarely find practical. Instead, what vets are doing is taking care NOT to over vaccinate by using modern vaccine protocols.

Modern Vaccination Protocols

Your dog has a jab every year, so is your vet behind the times?

Probably not.

Extensive research monitoring antibody levels, into the longevity of protection indicate dogs are protected against parvo, distemper, and canine hepatitis for around three years. However, for the deadly disease Leptospirosis the protection barely makes it to a year.

Although your dog has a yearly injection, for two years out of three he’s likely to be given a lepto booster, rather than the full lot. And if you’re wondering why you pay the same price… it costs as much to make a monovalent (containing one component) as it does a multivalent (multiple components) vaccine.

FURTHER READING: Vaccines for Dogs and Cats: Advice for Owners. Veterinary Medicines Directive.

Do you vaccinate your dog regularly and why?

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