Vaccinations are an essential part of keeping your pets happy and healthy. Vaccines help prevent the spread of many deadly and highly contagious diseases such as parvovirus, distemper, and hepatitis. Though there is much debate about the need for annual vaccination and how many your pet needs, most veterinarians agree that vaccines are essential to your pet’s health.

Understanding Vaccines

Vaccines help prepare the body’s immune system to fight of invading disease-causing pathogens. They contain antigens that, when introduced in to the body, trick the immune system into creating antibodies so that, if your pet is ever exposed to the real disease, the immune system now recognises and is prepared to fight off or reduce the severity of the illness. Puppies have a natural immunity which they acquire through their mother’s milk, however this immunity wears off over time so pups need vaccinations to help boost their immune system.

The Vaccination Guideline Group (VGG) of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) recommends that vaccines be defined as core, non core or not recommended, and our veterinarians follow these guidelines.

Core Vaccinations

Core vaccines should be administered to all animals to protect them against severe, life-threatening diseases that have a global distribution.

Dogs: (C3) canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus (hepatitis), and canine parvovirus.

  • Parvovirus: highly contagious disease contracted through contact with infected animals and faeces; attacks the intestinal lining and causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea which can lead to extreme dehydration and death. Doberman and Rotteweilers are particularly susceptible.
  • Distemper: highly contagious, with no cure; mostly affects puppies and attacks multiple systems in the body, including the respiratory and nervous systems.
  • Hepatitis: highly infections, contracted through contact with infected dogs and bodily fluids (urine, faeces, saliva etc.); infects the liver and kidneys and can lead to death.

Cats: (F3) feline panleukopenia virus, feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus.

  • Panleukopenia: also known as “feline parvovirus”, highly contagious and can be fatal. Contracted through contact with infected cats and bodily fluids, attacks the intestinal tract and severely suppresses the immune system.
  • Calicivirus: highly contagious respiratory disease, spread through contact with infected eye, nasal, and oral discharges; along with feline herpesvirus, one of the most common causes of “cat flu”. Kittens, older cats, and immunosuppressed cats are at the greatest risk; most often seen in stray cats, shelters, and environments with overcrowding.
  • Herpes: highly contagious upper respiratory disease; most common in kittens, older cats, and cats in stressed/overcrowded environments (e.g. animal shelters and multi-cat households). Once your cat becomes infected with the feline herpesvirus, they will have it for life and may experience recurrent episodes when stressed.

Non-core Vaccinations

Non-core vaccines are required by only those animals whose geographic location, local environment or lifestyle places them at risk of contracting specific infections.

Dogs: parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, and Leptospira interrogans.

Cats: feline leukaemia virus, Chlamydia felis, and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) vaccines may also be classified in this group, however they’re strongly recommended for outdoor cats.

  • Feline immunodeficiency virus: the feline equivalent to human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), FIV weakens/suppresses the immune system, leaving the body open to attack by other diseases. Transmitted through saliva (usually bite or scratch wounds from an infected cat), there is no treatment or cure for FIV – prevention is key here. Outdoor cats are most at risk as they are more likely to come in contact with feral cats who carry the disease.

Frequency of Vaccinations

When your pets are young, there is a standard schedule of vaccinations that need to be met during their first year of life. After this initial course, the core vaccinations should be administered every 1 – 3 years based on your veterinarian’s recommendations. This will be determined by your pet’s age, medical history, environment, and lifestyle.

If your dog is being placed in to a kennel (or kennelled regularly), or is in regular contact with other dogs (via shows, grooming, etc.), some of the non-core vaccinations will need to be kept up to date as well. Kennel cough vaccinations, especially, need to be given yearly regardless of your core-vaccination schedule.

Even if your pet’s vaccination schedule is every three years, an annual health check by a veterinarian is still essential to keep your pet healthy. When you think about it, an annual vet check is the equivalent of a human heading to the doctor’s office once every 5 – 7 years! A lot can happen in this time, and it’s important that we detect any problems early to provide effective treatment options and a healthier pet. Senior pets are recommended to see a veterinarian at least twice yearly because, like people, their health problems increase in severity and frequency with age.

If you’re concerned about over-vaccinating your pet, there is a test that can be done to determine whether a particular vaccination is necessary. These are called “titer tests”, and they measure the amount of antibodies in the body and can give us an idea of whether a booster may be needed or not. Ask your vet about titer testing at your next visit.

Are Vaccinations Safe?

Vaccinations mildly stimulate the body’s immune system in order to create antibodies to protect your pet from infectious diseases. As with any medical procedure, there is always a chance of side affects. Most pets show no ill-effects from vaccination, however some may experience mild symptoms ranging from soreness around the injection site, to mild fevers and allergic reactions. It’s important to talk to your vet about your pet’s medical history before it is vaccinated to reduce any risks. If you suspect your pet is experiencing an allergic reaction to a vaccine, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Keep in mind that vaccines have saved countless lives, and the risk of major side effects is much lower than the risk of contracting the actual diseases. Your vet is there to protect and look after your pet’s health and will not bring unnecessary risk to them while they are in their care. If you have any concerns or questions about your pet and their vaccination status, don’t hesitate to call and ask questions.