Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher
Off the Leash
While I am still holding out that this is a “pseudo” spring and I might have some more snowboarding ahead of me, my hope is starting to fade. As promised, I will talk about vaccines this week. While we still typically call them “spring shots,” they can be done anytime in the year.
Since we still often think of them in the spring, I’ll talk about them during this “spring.” The season of muddy dogs, cats asking to go outside, and even muddier floors. The season when we again begin to take our dogs on treks after work (in the daylight!) It is also the season of annual examinations and vaccines for a lot of pets.
The “core” vaccines are due every three years after the initial set. 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 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.
Rabies and the distemper combination vaccine (which includes several viral diseases) are the two core vaccines. This means that they are the basics that all animals should get. Rabies is required by law, and is a good idea regardless. Bats are one of the animals that carry rabies most often, and I know that I had three inside my house last year. Rabies is no joking matter, and unfortunately, is not a thing of the past. There is no cure for rabies in animals or humans.
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. In 2016, there were several local cases of parvo. We typically think of this as a puppy disease, but older dogs can be carriers and can also be affected. It is most common in older dogs that have some immune system compromise. Distemper virus is carried in Vermont by foxes. While a distemper vaccine has nothing to do with their temperament (don’t we wish it were so easy), 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.
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. 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).
Kennel cough is the third yearly vaccine for dogs. This is recommended for dogs that board, go to daycare, or spend time at the groomers. It also does not prevent kennel cough, but greatly decreases the severity if it is contracted.
Feline leukemia vaccine is the yearly feline vaccine that is recommended for outdoor cats. This can be given every two years based on your cat’s activity, the area where you live and your veterinarian’s discretion. Leukemia is spread through saliva and is usually contracted through fighting, but can also be spread by 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. 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 animals do very well after being vaccinated. 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 “pieces,” 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 isn’t as good. 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.
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 a perfect alternative.
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.