August is National Immunization Awareness Month for the veterinary community.

As pet parents, we need to learn which vaccines our pets absolutely must have to protect against disease and the ones they don’t necessarily need.

Because we understand the debate going on as to how often our furry companions need vaccinations, we advise that you gather all information you can regarding your pets’ health and discuss a schedule with your veterinarian. Many modern vets are looking at their patient’s ages, health problems, environment and lifestyle before recommending ongoing vaccines.

How do immunizations work in the body?

Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of minor infection, however, does not cause illness; it causes your pet’s immune system to produce T-lymphocytes (white blood cells) and antibodies.

Once the ‘imitation infection’ goes away, your animal’s body is left with a supply of “memory” T-lymphocytes that will remember how to fight that disease in the future. It typically takes 10 days to a few weeks for the body to produce these lymphocytes after vaccination. Therefore, it is possible that a pet that was infected with a disease just before or just after vaccination could develop symptoms and the illness, because the vaccine has not had enough time to provide protection.

Normally, vaccinations become part of your cat or dog’s annual exam, and, depending on the type of vaccine and your vet’s discretion, will be administered either yearly or every 3 years. Your veterinarian can best determine a vaccination schedule for your dog or cat depending on the type of vaccine, your pet’s age, medical history, environment and lifestyle. Modern versions of feline and canine rabies and canine distemper vaccines are given every 3 years.

When your puppy or kitten is around six to eight weeks of age, your veterinarian can begin to administer a series of vaccines at three- or four-week intervals until the baby reaches 16 weeks of age. This allows your baby to gradually build up the disease antibodies until full immunity is reached. Veterinarians urge you not to have your new puppy or kitten around unvaccinated animals until after all inoculations are completed.

What types of vaccines are used on companion animals?

Typically, there are 3 types of vaccines used on pets: 1) modified live vaccines, 2)  killed vaccines, and 3) recombinant vaccines. The type of vaccine used depends upon the manufacturer and your veterinarian.

  • Modified live vaccines fight viruses. These vaccines contain a version of the living virus that has been weakened so that it does not cause serious disease in people with healthy immune systems. Because live vaccines are the closest things to a natural infection, they are good teachers for the immune system. Ex: Distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus, parainfluenza for dogs. Panleukopenia, calici and herpes virus for cats.
  • Killed vaccines also fight viruses. These vaccines are made by inactivating, or killing, the virus during the process of making the vaccine. Killed vaccines produce immune responses in different ways than moderated live vaccines. Often, multiple doses are necessary to build up and/or maintain immunity. Ex: Corona virus, leptospirosis, Lyme disease for dogs. Chlamydia, leukemia, and rabies for cats.
  • Recombinant vaccines include only parts of the virus or bacteria, or subunits, instead of the entire germ. Because these vaccines contain only the essential antigens and not all the other molecules that make up the germ, side effects are less common. Ex: Distemper and Lyme disease for dogs, feline rabies.

What are the core vaccines?

Core vaccines are considered vital to all dogs and cats based on the risk of exposure, the severity of disease, and/or transmissibility of the disease to pet parents.

Dogs – Canine parvovirus, distemper, rabies and hepatitis
Cats – Panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline calici virus, feline herpes virus type I (rhinotracheitis) and rabies.

What are the elective, or non-core, vaccines?

Non-core vaccines are given depending on your pet’s risk of exposure.

For example, if your dog loves the outdoors and swimming in lakes and streams, you may want to vaccinate against Lyme disease and Leptospirosis. The brown dog tick carries Lyme disease and leptospirosa bacteria often reside in lakes and streams. Your indoor cat may not need the Chlamydia, FLeuk or FIV vaccines, but vets recommend that all outdoor cats be inoculated against these deadly diseases.

Dogs — Bordetella bronchiseptica, Lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi and Leptospira bacteria.
Cats – Feline leukemia virus, Bordetella, Chlamydophila felis and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV).

What are the risks involved with vaccinating your pet?

Sometimes, after getting a vaccine, the imitation infection can cause minor symptoms, such as a fever or slight diarrhea. Such minor symptoms are normal and should be expected as the body builds immunity. However, some particularly sensitive pets may develop symptoms of anaphylactic shock.

The inoculation site may become hot, inflamed and itchy. You might notice your pet having problems swallowing (drooling, unable to drink) or breathing (coughing, gasping for air). The face, paws and ears might become swollen or develop hives. Your pet may become sluggish, not want to eat, or collapse. Some animals are known to have seizures. Any of these symptoms constitutes a veterinary emergency and your pet needs to see a vet immediately for relief of the symptoms.

If you have any questions, reach out to your local veterinarian.
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