by Nancy Kay, DVM ©

During my last year of veterinary school, I recall how scary it was when a new canine virus—parvovirus—seemed to appear out of nowhere.  Highly contagious, it spread like wildfire throughout the United States, causing severe illness and often death. It was a downright frightening time for veterinarians and the clients they served. Fortunately, an effective vaccine was rapidly developed, and this horrible new virus was downgraded from a rampant deadly infection to a preventable disease. Thank goodness for vaccines! They provide a remarkable means of preventive health care for dogs.

As invaluable as vaccinations are for protecting canine health, determining which vaccines are appropriate and how frequently they should be administered are no longer simple decisions. In my book, vaccinations are no different than any other medical procedure.  They should not be administered without individualized discussion and consideration of the potential risks and benefits. Gone are the days of behaving like a “Stepford wife” when it comes to your dog’s vaccinations— it’s no longer necessarily in his best interest to vaccinate simply because a reminder postcard has arrived in the mailbox.

Consider the following:

• There are currently 14 canine vaccinations to choose from! Back in the days when I was just a dog there were only five, and decision-making regarding vaccine selection for an individual dog was far less complicated.

• Over the past decade we’ve learned that, for some vaccines, the duration of protection is far longer than previously recognized.  In the past we vaccinated for the core diseases (distemper, parvovirus, and rabies) annually.  We now know that these vaccinations, when given to adult dogs, provide protection for a minimum of three years and, in some cases protection is life-long.

• The duration and degree of immune protection triggered by a vaccine is variable, not only based on manufacturer, but from dog to dog as well.

• Other than for rabies (state mandated), vaccination protocols are anything but standardized. There are no set rules veterinarians must follow when determining which vaccines to give and how often they are administered. Unfortunately, some vets continue to vaccinate for distemper and parvovirus annually even though we know that these adult vaccines provide protection for a minimum of three years.  Some vets give multiple inoculations at once, others administer just one at a time.

• Increasingly clear-cut documentation shows that vaccines have the potential to cause many side effects.  While vaccine reactions/complications are still considered to be infrequent, they can be life threatening.

What you can do:

So, as your dog’s savvy and courageous medical advocate, what can you do to be sure that he is neither under or overvaccinated? Here are some guidelines for making wise vaccine choices for your best buddy:

1.  Educate yourself about available canine vaccinations and the diseases they are capable of preventing (in some cases treating the disease, should it arise, might be preferable to the risks and expense associated with vaccination). Learn about duration of vaccine protection and potential side effects.  Talk with a trusted veterinarian and read the chapter called “The Vaccination Conundrum” in Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. Itprovides detailed discussion about all aspects of canine vaccinations including the diseases they prevent, adverse vaccination reactions, and vaccine serology (blood testing that helps determine if your dog is truly in need of another vaccine). The American Animal Hospital Association’s “Canine Vaccine Guidelines” is also an excellent source of information.

2.  Figure out which diseases your dog has potential exposure to.  A miniature poodle who rarely leaves his Manhattan penthouse likely has no exposure to Lyme disease (spread by ticks); however a Lab that goes camping and duck hunting may have significant exposure.

3.  Alert your veterinarian to any symptoms or medical issues your dog is experiencing.  It is almost always best to avoid vaccinating a sick dog — better to let his immune system concentrate on getting rid of a current illness rather than creating a vaccine “distraction.” If your dog has a history of autoimmune (immune-mediated) disease, it may be advisable to alter his vaccine protocol or even forego ongoing vaccinations — be sure to discuss this with your vet.

4.  Let your vet know if your dog has had vaccine side effects in the past. If the reaction was quite serious, she may recommend that you forego future vaccinations, necessitating an official letter to your local government agency excusing your dog from rabies• related requirements.

5.  Consider vaccine serology for your dog.  This involves testing a blood sample from your dog to determine if adequate vaccine protection still exists (remember, vaccine protection for the core diseases lasts a minimum of three years).  While such testing isn’t perfect, in general if the blood test indicates active and adequate protection, there is no need to vaccinate. Serology may make more sense than simply vaccinating at set intervals.

6.  Ask your veterinarian about the potential side effects of proposed vaccinations, what you should be watching for, and whether or not there are any restrictions for your dog in the days immediately following vaccination.

Vaccine Clinics

I will tell you right up front that I am not a fan of vaccine clinics -  a “factory line” approach to vaccinating dogs.  Their only redeeming quality seems to be their low cost that makes it possible for some dogs to be vaccinated that otherwise wouldn’t be.  Know that, if you choose to use a vaccination clinic you may be sacrificing quality of care for your dog in the following ways:

• You may not receive adequate counseling about which vaccinations are appropriate for your dog based on his age and lifestyle.

• Serologic testing will not be an option.

• A thorough physical examination will not be performed prior to vaccination administration.  Abnormalities such as a fever, irregular heart rhythm, or abdominal mass will go unnoticed.  Not only might the vaccination do more harm than good in a dog that is sick, but a golden window of opportunity for early disease detection and treatment will be missed.

• Records pertaining to prior adverse vaccination reactions may not be available.

• The vaccination clinic veterinarian may not be available to tend to your dog should he experience an adverse reaction, especially one that occurs hours to days later.

Have you had difficulty figuring out which vaccines your dog really needs and how often they should be administered?  If so, please share your story with me.

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Now, here’s wishing you and your four-legged best friend abundant good health!

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life

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