Prevent, don’t regret: Vaccinations are critical to pet health

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

So of course as soon as I published my spring article on a balmy, grassy, muddy day…we got snow. I don’t pretend to know the answers to weather, especially Vermont weather. But I’m still going to talk about vaccines. Many people think of vaccines as being “spring shots” (I completely blame this on us horse people), but in fact many of our patients get their vaccines throughout the year. So I will not let the snow stop me from talking about some vaccine basics.

The “core” vaccines are due every three years after the initial set (though some practices also do yearly.) This may mean (especially for cats) that your pet isn’t due for anything other than an examination. Annual exams are often overlooked, but are just as important as when vaccines aren’t due. Having a trained professional examine all parts of your animal at least yearly is probably one of the most important things you can do for them. It allows us to examine the teeth, joints and feel internal organs- all things that you likely don’t routinely do at home. I go over this a lot, and will again, but will move on for now.

Rabies and the distemper combination vaccine (which includes several viral diseases) are the two core vaccines. The “core” means that these are the things that all animals are prone to so should be protected against. The viruses found in the canine distemper combination vaccine are very important. Many of them were common and deadly before vaccination was standard. Now, luckily, the incidence is much lower. Parvovirus often causes fatal gastrointestinal signs and immune system crashes. Parvo is often fatal, and is expensive and labor intensive to treat. We see this most commonly in puppies, since their immune systems are still developing. However, parvovirus can also occur in older dogs that have had vaccine lapses, especially those that see many other dogs.

Distemper virus is carried in Vermont by foxes most commonly. It is very common in other places, and is seen commonly in shelter puppies from the south who did not have adequately vaccinated mothers. While a distemper vaccine has nothing to do with their temperament (when I can invent that I will be a millionaire), it is an important disease to prevent. The feline distemper vaccine encompasses several viral diseases that cause respiratory disease most often, but can also cause immune system issues and birth defects.

Leptospirosis is a type of bacteria that is found in ground-water and spread to dogs. It is transmitted in the urine of many types of animals, including deer, rats, squirrels, pigs and livestock. This is a yearly vaccine after the initial two part series, and should be started in dogs over 4 months. If you have a dog that is prone to drinking from puddles, ponds or streams this is an important vaccine. Although leptospirosis is thankfully not endemic in our area (which means that it is not extremely common), it is difficult to treat and can be deadly. We still see at least a case a year, so it is certainly not unheard of.

The lyme vaccine is also a yearly canine vaccination after the initial two part series. This is highly recommended for all dogs that spend time outdoors. Experts are quickly coming to a consensus that the Lyme vaccine should become a “core” vaccine in endemic areas (like Vermont.) Lyme disease (the B. Burgdorferi organism) is spread by deer ticks. While the vaccine does not prevent the transmission of Lyme disease (and a preventative should still be used), it has been shown to decrease the symptoms of the disease and goes a long way towards preventing the often fatal form (when it spreads to the kidneys). People are often upset that we have a vaccine that doesn’t prevent the disease, but like the flu vaccine (in past years!) it shortens the course and severity.

Kennel cough is the third yearly vaccine for dogs. This is recommended for dogs that board, go to daycare, play with a lot of other dogs, or spend time at the groomers. It also does not prevent kennel cough, but greatly decreases the severity if it is contracted. The kennel cough “complex” involves many bacteria and viruses, and the vaccine only works against 1 or 2 (depending on type.) It does work against the most common agent, but not all.

Feline leukemia vaccine is the yearly feline vaccine that is recommended for outdoor cats. This can be given every two years based on your cats activity, the area where you live and your veterinarian’s discretion. Leukemia is spread through saliva and is spread through bites or grooming. This virus causes suppression of the immune system, and the severity varies between different cats. It can also be spread to kittens from their mother, which is why all kittens should be tested before receiving the vaccine.

There is always a back and forth about the safety of vaccines, especially from Dr. Google and assorted websites. You can often figure out the bias when websites have words like “poison”, “killing chemicals” or “pet autism”. It is always important to bring any concerns to your vet or a veterinary professional. There are certain animals that have allergic reactions to different types of vaccines. These animals are thankfully the minority, and most never even notice.

Unfortunately, we never know which animals will have reactions. For this reason, it is important to have your pet vaccinated (especially for the first time) on a day when they will not be left alone immediately after their shots.

Vaccines introduce small parts of the virus or bacteria into our pets. These viruses or bacteria have been modified and are in small enough number that the vaccines are safe for the majority of pets. The body sees these teensy tinsy invaders and the immune system then creates antibodies (immune system soldiers). These circulate in the body so that in the event the actual disease is introduced, the pet will already have an army ready to fight it off.

Because we are introducing a foreign “enemy” and asking the immune system to respond, the animal should be healthy when they are vaccinated. A sick animal should never be vaccinated since their immune response is busy with other things. Spreading out vaccines also helps the body respond more appropriately to each one, and decreases the amount that the body has to “multi task”.

All veterinarians and clinics vary in their policy, so I recommend that you discuss vaccine questions with your vet. I always try to have patients come back with a couple weeks between each vaccine. While it is slightly more time for our owners, the follow up vaccines should not require another exam and only take a couple minutes. For this reason, they are not more expensive than doing them all together. The benefit is that your pet gets more fun, easy visits to the clinic and we get more chances to give them treats and say hi to owners.

If you are worried about vaccines, we can use a blood sample to titer for certain vaccines in adult animals. If your pet has a high enough titer (which is the level of antibodies in the blood), they do not have to be vaccinated. The level of the titer will help us determine how long they can go without another vaccine or another titer. This is a wonderful alternative that can allow us to go many years between vaccines. Distemper titers can be done in the clinic, while other vaccine titers must be sent to a lab. The cost is higher than it would be to simply vaccinate, but if you are worried about vaccines, titering is an alternative to discuss with your vet.

Vaccinations are an important part of pet health, and help us keep our pets living longer and healthier lives. While Spring can get busy, make sure that you aren’t ignoring reminders from your veterinarian.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL:

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