Vaccines have long been an important part of preventative medicine, both in humans and in pets. By giving a pet a controlled amount of a weakened/dead infectious organism or a piece of that organism in the form of a vaccine, the pet's immune system can prepare itself and be ready for the day if and when the real organism arrives to infect. The geared up immune system will be able to either prevent the infection from occurring or reduce the severity of disease that infection would have otherwise produced. In other words, vaccines can save lives!
There are a plethora of different vaccines available, but your pet likely does not need every single one. There are a couple of 'core' vaccines that veterinarians recommend as essential for every dog or cat and others that are given on a pet-to-pet basis. The best way to know which vaccines in addition to the core vaccines you should give your pet is to talk to your veterinarian about your pet's lifestyle, which would include where your pet goes and with what they come in contact.
Most pets do not have any side effects from vaccines, but they certainly can and do happen. These side effects range from mild to a severe anaphylactic reaction, which could be fatal. Some side effects include lethargy and mild fever for 24-36 hours, a small bump under the skin where the injection was given, itchiness near injection area, hair loss at injection site, a swollen face/muzzle, vomiting, cancer at the site of injection and shock.
Sometimes pets will display mild signs of the disease we are trying to prevent. We don't know which pets will have a reaction to a vaccine until they have a reaction. If your pet has a reaction to a vaccine, in the future either pre-medicating with antihistamines and/or steroids (to reduce the chances of a subsequent reaction) or avoiding that vaccine altogether should be discussed with your veterinarian. Some pets with known previous or current conditions called 'immune-mediated' disorders may be exempt from receiving vaccines, even core vaccines, as there is evidence that some immune mediated disorders can be triggered by vaccines.
The following is not a fully comprehensive list but includes the most common vaccines, and discusses why your pet may or may not benefit from it.
Rabies is a core vaccine for dogs and cats, both indoors and outdoors, because of the potential for human infection. This vaccine helps prevent your pet and yourself from ever getting this fatal disease caused by wild animals such as skunks, raccoons, bats, and coyotes. If a rabid animals' saliva gets into your pets' blood (usually through bites), they will get rabies and eventually die. The vaccine is very effective, and a legal requirement for dogs in California (not legally required in cats, but highly recommended nonetheless). The recommendation is an initial injection at 16 weeks old, followed by a booster one year later, and then every three years thereafter.
DHPP is a core vaccine for dogs and includes protection against canine distemper virus, hepatitis (adenovirus), parvovirus, and para-influenza virus. All four of these viruses can cause devastating disease, but vaccinated dogs are quite well protected. It is acquired dog to dog either through infectious airborne particles/nasal or salivary secretions, ingesting contaminated feces (parvo) or maternally. An initial puppy series of injections is given every 3-4 weeks starting at 6-9 weeks old and ending at 16 weeks old, followed by a booster one year later, and then every 1-3 years thereafter (depending on veterinary clinic protocol recommendations, individual exposure, other risk factors)
FVRCP is a core vaccine for cats and includes protection against feline herpes (feline viral rhinotracheitis), calicivirus, and panleukopenia. These viruses cause oral/nasal-respiratory/ocular problems (upper respiratory infections) or intestinal/bone marrow disease (panleukopenia) and can be very severe. It is transmitted from cat to cat through infectious airborne particles/nasal or salivary secretions, ingesting contaminated feces (panleuk) or maternally. An initial kitten series of injections is given every 3-4 weeks starting at 6-9 weeks old and ending at 16 weeks old, followed by a booster one year later, and then every 1-3 years thereafter (depending on veterinary clinic protocol recommendations, individual exposure, other risk factors);
Bordetella is a non-core vaccine to help prevent the well known dog disease called kennel cough. It is recommended for dogs that come into contact with other dogs, especially in stressful situations such as kennels, grooming facilities, and dog parks. The vaccine does not totally prevent the disease (no vaccine 100 percent all of the time is effective) and often pets who have the vaccine can still acquire it. An initial vaccine sometime in puppyhood (10-16 weeks usually) is followed up every six months to one year, depending on exposure and requirements by the various groomers and kennels, etc.
Felv is a non-core vaccine to help prevent feline leukemia virus. It is recommended only in outdoor cats that come into contact with other outdoor cats of unknown vaccine status. Felv is transmitted through prolonged casual contact with an infected cat (saliva from grooming each other, sharing bowls) or maternally and causes serious disease that leads to infections, cancers and death. The vaccine itself can cause a cancer called a sarcoma at the area of injection in some cats which is why we do not recommend it for every cat. An initial kitten injection is given at 12 weeks, followed by a booster in a month, and then every 1-3 years thereafter.
While the aforementioned vaccines are the most common, many other vaccines are available and may be important for your particular pet. Please ask your veterinarian about the following vaccines to decide if your pet's risk/exposure is high enough to warrant them.
- Leptospirosis: for dogs that hang out around wildlife/rodents and their urine.
- Lyme: for dogs that get ticks.
- Rattlesnake: for dogs that are exposed to rattlesnakes.