by Dr. S. Dawn Dinger, DVM
Vaccinations are one of the best ways to help keep your pet healthy and living a long and happy life. There are many different vaccines that protect against a multitude of different diseases which can affect both your pet and you. Recently though there have been some questions about how often to vaccinate and even what vaccines to give. In part I of this this blog, we'll answer some of the common questions about vaccinations. In parts II and III we'll cover the most current vaccine recommendations for both dogs and cats and talk about what diseases they protect against.
What is a vaccine? Vaccines are substances given to stimulate the immune system. They are usually given by injection, but there are some oral (by mouth) and intranasal (by nostril) vaccines as well. Vaccines contain “antigens” which are designed to look like the disease they are protecting against and which stimulate the production of “antibodies” - small proteins which fight specific infections. This way, if the dog or cat is ever exposed to the real disease, their body is already prepared to fight off the infection.
I've heard about core and non-core vaccines. What does that mean? These are terms used by the latest American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) and American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) vaccination guidelines. In general, “core” vaccinations are those that are considered vital for every pet due to how common the disease is, the risk of exposure, the severity of the disease or the risk to people. These include diseases such as Distemper and Parvo virus for dogs; Panleukopenia and Rhinotracheitis for cats; and Rabies for both species. “Non-core” vaccines are ones that your pet may or may not need depending on their lifestyle and risk of exposure. This does not necessarily mean that the diseases are less severe. Non-core vaccines include diseases such as Bordetella (Kennel Cough) and Feline Leukemia. At Green Valley Veterinary Hospital we will discuss vaccinations for your pet at each wellness visit to help determine what is needed to keep your pet safe.
Are any vaccinations required by law? Typically rabies vaccinations are required by law for dogs and cats over 12 weeks of age in the United States, however individual states may have different requirements as to how often those vaccinations need to be given (IE every year vs every 3 years).
How often does my puppy or kitten need to be vaccinated and when do we start? Puppies and kittens receive some antibodies from their mother while nursing (assuming she was properly vaccinated herself). These help protect them from disease while they are very young, however the strength of those antibodies wanes with time. To compensate for this and the fact that young animal's immune systems are still maturing, vaccinations are typically started around 6-8 weeks of age and are continued every 3-4 weeks until they are 16-20 weeks of age.
What about my adult dog or cat? The vaccination schedule for adult animals depends on the type of vaccine given, the disease we are protecting against, your pet's overall health and previous vaccination history. Some vaccines may need to be given annually, while others might only need to be given every three years. We will work with you to determine the best vaccination schedule for your pet.
Are there any risks? Countless animals have been saved by vaccination so the benefits definitely outweigh the risks. However as with any medical procedure, there is always a small chance of side effects. With the vaccinations available today however, in most cases these risks are quite small compared to the disease itself.
What signs should I watch for? Vaccines stimulate the immune system. It is not uncommon for there to be some mild soreness at the site where the vaccine was given (just like us when we get a vaccine), but a low grade fever or even allergic reactions can develop less commonly. Some signs that warrant veterinary attention include: severe lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, facial swelling, hives, pallor (looking pale in hairless areas or gums) and collapse.
What are Vaccine Associated Sarcomas in cats? A sarcoma is a type of cancer. Most sarcomas that occur are not related to vaccines at all, but some tumors have occurred at the site of vaccinations with Rabies and Feline Leukemia being the most commonly implicated. Most veterinary scientists believe the culprit is the “adjuvant” in those vaccinations (an adjuvant is a substance that is added to some vaccines to stimulate a stronger immune response and prolong the vaccine's action) and so current recommendations are to only administer “non-adjuvanted” vaccines to cats. Rest assured that at Green Valley Veterinary Hospital we only administer the safest vaccinations available to our feline patients. Fortunately vaccine associated sarcomas are quite rare, only occurring between 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 vaccinations.
Can I buy and administer vaccinations at home for my pet? The short answer to this question is yes (except for Rabies which by law has to be administered by a licensed veterinarian), but it is not recommended for several reasons. One, vaccines need to be shipped and stored at the proper temperature to maintain their sterility and effectiveness. This can not be guaranteed when purchasing vaccines at the pet or feed store for example. Also vaccinations need to be administered appropriately and in the locations recommended in the current guidelines which can sometimes be difficult without appropriate training and restraint. In addition, syringes and needles are considered medical waste and can not be legally disposed of in the regular trash, and in the event that your pet does develop a problem secondary to the vaccination, you may not be quipped to manage it. Most importantly though is the fact that there is much more to your pet's annual visit that just “shots”. A complete, comprehensive physical exam is the most important part of your pet's visit to the veterinarian, but that visit also includes assessment of and recommedations on things like behavior, diet, parasite control and diagnostic testing, as well as an assessment of risk so the correct vaccinations themselves can be selected.
In Part II of this blog, we will discuss the current canine vaccination guidelines and the various disease we are trying to prevent so stay tuned….
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