Vaccinations for Your Dog: A Complex Issue

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 pup 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. It provides 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 pup 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.

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

Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook    

Please visit to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at, local bookstores, or your favorite online book seller.

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8 Comments on “Vaccinations for Your Dog: A Complex Issue

  1. Pingback: Boulder Dog » Blog Archive » #FollowFriday Fab Four: August 13, 2010

  2. Pingback: Did you know there are currently 14 canine vaccinations to choose from?! - Dogasaur

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  4. Thank you for including the vaccine information in your book. I learned about the side effects the hard way. My yellow lab was three and was going to doggie day care occasionally as well as being boarded. In compliance with regulations in our state, he was required to have annual vaccines, three year rabies and bortella for me to use these services. I thought I was a good pet owner and followed these protocols and as many have said took him in for his shots when we got the annual card. Four days after his last immunizations (his is six now) he developed a bump back by his tail. Long story short it was a mast tumor (unusual in younger dogs) surgery could not get clear margins. He went through chemo and radiation and we are holding steady but ever vigilant for the return of more tumors. His was a \2\. We now have a letter from the oncologist stating that he cannot ever receive any more immunizations. This does limit boarding and group dog activities. Thank goodness for my faithful dog sitter.

    Please be an adovate for your dog. Read everything that you can get your hands on. There is a lot of good information out there that I found after the fact. If your vet gets upset with you when you ask questions and have opinions about your pet’s care – you are in the wrong place!

  5. Pingback: Vaccinations for Your Dog: A Complex Issue « DogSmith Dog Training & Pet Care

  6. Please, keep an animal health record for each animal: updated vaccinations, prescriptions, weight, dietary restrictions, etc. If you need someone to suddenly take care of your pet, it’s all right there in the file. If you are not sure what your pet needs as far as vaccinations, it’s all right there in your file for you to ask questions. Don’t be an un-informed pet owner. All it takes is a file folder or a large manila envelope. And remember to take it with you when you travel with your pet!

  7. Thank you so much for this post. I was my veterinarian’s first client to request titering and after doing so, he studied it and let others know of this option. Since his passing in March, I have only found 1 other vet in the county I live in that agreed titering was right for me and my dog. I cannot prove it, but I truly believe that something in the 7 way (I think that is what it was) vaccine contributed to if not caused my dogs neurological problems when he was 4 years old.

    [Speaking for Spot was an enormous help in interviewing veterinarians and their staff. They were all taken aback by the list of questions I brought in with me. I could write pages on this experience.]

  8. My long time, wonderful vet clinic sponsors a 1/2 price vaccine clinic all day every Thursday. So I can run in and get my animals their shots, but it is at a place that has their medical records and knows us personally. Best of both worlds!