DOG VACCINATIONS AND THE DISEASES THEY PREVENT
I. HOW IMMUNITY WORKS IN DOGS
The theory of immunization is the same for dogs as it is for people: a small amount of the disease you want to protect against is injected into a dog, stimulating her body to produce disease fighters called antibodies. If the dog is exposed to that disease, she will possess the antibodies to fight it off.
Puppies receive antibodies through their mother's milk; the protection this affords them usually lasts for several weeks and gradually diminishes, although the rate of attrition varies widely from dog to dog. As long as the mother’s antibodies are still working in the puppy’s system, it doesn’t matter what vaccinations she receives—her own immune system won’t produce antibodies; anything she’s exposed to will basically be neutralized.
But people have misconceptions about their dog's risk of disease and the importance of puppy shots. For years we’ve been told a puppy is at risk of life threatening diseases if she doesn’t receive the full smorgasbord of shots. Now these traditional beliefs are being questioned.
In 2003 the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) issued new guidelines to reduce or eliminate some yearly vaccinations. Now it maintains that unnecessary stimulation of the immune system does not result in enhanced resistance and may be harmful. The AVMA’s new recommendation is to vaccinate adult dogs no more than once every three years. This is a significant departure from the yearly vaccination theory that prevailed for decades. It is particularly interesting because proponents of “alternative” veterinary medicine have made this claim for decades. Unfortunately, the only dog owners to heed this advice were those who were already proponents of nontraditional medicine.
II. WHICH VACCINATIONS TO GIVE YOUR DOG, AND WHEN
The AVMA recently divided vaccines into three categories based on how frequently they should be administered, if at all. The “core” group—distemper, parvovirus, adenovirus and rabies—are all highly recommended vaccines, but only every three years. Studies show that the vaccines for parvo, distemper and adenovirus last seven years. Rabies, the only one required by law, lasts three years. Other vaccines are divided into “non-core”—those that are optional depending on your dog’s individual circumstances—and finally those that are “not recommended.”
AVMA DOG VACCINE RECOMMENDATIONS
TIMETABLE FOR PUPPY VACCINATIONS
Because there are several infectious diseases that rarely occur anymore, some veterinarians give only two vaccines: distemper and parvovirus. An example of optimal timing is giving the shots at eight weeks, the second set at eleven or twelve weeks, and the third booster at fifteen or sixteen weeks of age. Your vet will recommend a vaccination schedule for your puppy, but opinions may vary.
Some vets do not recommend an annual booster once a puppy has his full set of shots. But most progressive vets will give a puppy his first set of shots, his booster one year later, and vaccinate once every three years thereafter.
WHY GIVE A PUPPY SHOTS EVERY FEW WEEKS?
In most puppies, the maternal immunity diminishes somewhere between six and sixteen weeks. If you give a vaccine during that time, there’s a good chance it will be “erased” by maternal antibodies while they remain strong in the puppy’s system.
A puppy’s shots are spaced at four-week intervals so that he won’t be unprotected for long between the time the maternal immunity weakens and the puppy’s own antibody protection begins, triggered by his vaccinations. After the puppy’s had his shots, the vet can test his blood to confirm his immune system has produced antibodies in response to the vaccines, and thus confirm he is protected (see “Titer Testing” below).
Vets who subscribe to the less-is-more theory of dog vaccinations maintain that if vaccines are necessary, they must be given separately. If you agree with this thinking, then ask your vet to order “single-valent” vaccines (vaccines that contain only one virus and therefore can confer immunity to only that disease) so he will give your dog only parvo vaccine, for example, and then two weeks later a single-valent dose of distemper.
III. WHAT IS A DOG VACCINE TITER TEST?
A “titer test” is a blood test that shows the presence and strength (or concentration) of your dog’s immunological response to a viral disease such as distemper or parvovirus. The test also determines the strength of your dog’s immune system. If your dog has satisfactory levels of vaccine titers, then he does not need further vaccination against the disease. The cost of titer testing has decreased as more people recognize its benefits. Laboratory testing varies from about $50 to $100 for CDV (canine distemper virus) and CPV (canine parvovirus) testing.
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF TITERS
Your vet should order vaccine titer testing, and not disease titer testing. This is the difference between the two from the laboratory’s point of view: if a dog were very sick from an active viral disease when the blood was drawn, then the titer levels in his blood would be very high as his body fought off the disease. The lab would be looking for those high levels and a positive test result. But if they were testing a normal, healthy dog for vaccine titer levels, the lab would be looking for lower titer levels in the dog’s blood—which would show the dog’s system has a healthy “immune memory” of having been vaccinated in the past and therefore able to fight off that illness should he be exposed to it.
WHICH TITERS TO TEST
Even though dozens of dog vaccines are available, measuring the titers for just two will provide a reliable picture of your dog’s immune system: a test that shows good immunity to CPV and CDV indicates the dog’s immune system is “competent,” meaning it is strong and can withstand exposure to the disease.
ARE TITER TESTS TRUSTWORTHY?
Blood-titer-level testing has been criticized as unreliable, but if the blood is tested at an excellent facility the only potential problem is a false negative. Titers once had to be processed in a lab at a veterinary school with properly validated results—Cornell, Michigan State, or the University of Colorado, for example. But now vets can use the “TiterCHEK” test kit reliably in-house. A veterinarian must buy the kit, but can obtain results without waiting for lab results: your vet can draw blood from your dog when you first arrive for the annual veterinary checkup and have the results in fifteen minutes. A low titer level indicates the dog needs a booster vaccination.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT LOW TITER LEVELS
If your dog’s titer levels are low or borderline, your vet may suggest revaccinating and then testing the titers again; your dog may need the booster shot to stimulate a stronger immune response. Other doctors maintain that a low titer is not a sign you need to vaccinate, that the titer tests only measure the antibodies circulating at the time blood is drawn. These doctors believe that if your dog were exposed to the disease in question, the memory response in the cells would go into high gear and protect him from illness. Scientists are in universal agreement that “memory cells” often hold the bulk of immunity in the body and will often render titer testing totally unreliable.
In fact, challenging the animal with the actual disease is the only true way to test whether he has immunity, but this can be a risky proposition if his immunity is insufficient to ward off the illness. The safest strategy is probably revaccinating every three years (instead of annually), rather than relying on titer testing.
IV. THE CONTROVERSY ABOUT DOG VACCINATIONS
Although we now know dog vaccinations were overdone historically, they’ve still contributed to an enormous reduction in infectious diseases such as distemper, hepatitis, and parvo—diseases that killed countless dogs in the past, but are now rare in many locales. It is generally believed that the movement to reduce vaccines to the fewest possible is a positive one, but experts also caution that we must not forget the good that vaccinations can do and the danger of advocating a population of totally unvaccinated dogs.
OVER-VACCINATION IS GENERALLY BELIEVED UNHEALTHY FOR DOGS
Veterinary medicine has undergone a radical change, acknowledging there can be too much of a good thing, and that over-vaccinating can cause numerous long-term health problems. This warning is not a news bulletin to those who follow nontraditional health practices for their dogs. But questioning routine dog vaccinations is a big shock to the Western veterinary system, because yearly vaccinations have been considered the standard of care for so long. Cynics will suggest there was an obvious financial gain for vaccine manufacturers when vaccinations were recommended annually—and that veterinarians also stood to enjoy the revenues from giving the full array of shots to every dog in their practice annually. In fairness, veterinarians believed they were protecting those dogs from life-threatening diseases—until their own regulatory body changed its position on vaccinations.
THE DOG “VACCINATION REBELS”
Many dog owners, breeders, rescue workers, and other caretakers in the alternative animal-medical-care movement have always believed vaccinations do more harm than good in dogs who cannot tolerate the shots. But there’s no way to know which dogs will react poorly until after the vaccine is given. The “vaccination rebels” have taken a stand against all vaccines by citing this problem as well as various other health problems that seem to result from constant vaccinations throughout a dog’s life.
DOG VACCINE PROTECTION: SHEDDING VACCINATION ANTIGENS
This is a radical theory put forth by vaccination rebels, who are opposed to any puppies being vaccinated but at the same time want the benefits of the vaccines. This group’s solution to protecting their unvaccinated puppies is to have them “hang around” with vaccinated pups. They claim that vaccinated puppies shed antigens, and that their unvaccinated puppies can pick up those antigens.
Although scientifically there is a possibility that vaccinated dogs can confer immunity on other dogs, the problem is there’s no way of knowing which of the unprotected puppies is getting what immunity—or if they are getting any at all.
HOW TO PROTECT UNVACCINATED PUPPIES
The question of how to protect unvaccinated puppies is debated among the vaccine rebels, who support totally isolating the unprotected puppy. Dr. Pitcairn, a holistic vet/author who is opposed to vaccination, suggests the way to protect these puppies is to keep them safe from contact with the outside world until they are seven months old. But most dog owners won’t encounter a vet with such radical thinking, since most vets subscribe to more traditional or progressive schools of thought.
A competing holistic viewpoint is that keeping a dog in an isolated environment weakens her entire immune system. These practitioners of unconventional dog care recommend taking your puppy around with you on a limited basis, using your judgment about what seems like a safe, clean environment.
DO NOT IGNORE YOUR DOG’S SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT
Social development should not be ignored to conform to some unrealistic theory about totally isolating dogs to protect them from disease. Most progressive vets agree that pups should be isolated from the general population until their last vaccinations at sixteen weeks. But this is an important growth period for young dogs during which they need as much socialization as possible. A commonsense compromise might be taking the dog for rides in the car and arranging “play dates” with dogs you know are current on their vaccinations.
TALK TO YOUR VET IN PERSON ABOUT VACCINATING YOUR DOG
Vaccinating your dog is important enough to warrant scheduling an appointment to discuss whether your dog would be better off with fewer vaccinations or even none at all. (One exception would be rabies, which is governed by individual state laws.) You and your vet may decide not to vaccinate:
Talk about whether you can vaccinate only for “clinically important” diseases—those that could be a serious threat to your dog, such as parvo and distemper.
If your dog is more than a year old, you can measure his serum antibody titers to determine whether he really needs further vaccinations at any given time. A new trend among vets will probably be administering an annual titer test in lieu of annual vaccinations, so that a dog is immunized against only the diseases his own body cannot fight.
V. QUESTIONABLE DOG VACCINES
BORDETELLA (KENNEL COUGH) VACCINE
Kennel cough is a highly communicable upper-respiratory disease that is a problem in boarding kennels, training classes, dog runs, veterinarians’ offices, and especially pet stores. While it is really just a “doggie cold,” kennel cough is so contagious it can be spread by an infected dog’s coughing, sniffing, or even breathing near another dog.
Kennel cough is an airborne infection, the most difficult kind to prevent because a dog can be infectious before he shows symptoms. This illness can progress from an unremarkable dog cold to a lower-respiratory disease such as pneumonia, and can even cause death. You will know when a dog has it because she has a deep cough that sounds raspy and painful, like a croupy cough in a child; she may sound like she has something stuck in her throat.
There are two types of Bordetella vaccine: the injectable and the intranasal, a spray that is put into the dog’s nostril. Those who believe the vaccine itself can cause the disease often blame the nasal spray for its transmission.
Bordetella vaccine is ineffective because kennel cough is caused by a host of bacterial invaders that no single Bordetella vaccine can stop. It is a misconception that the vaccination has any protective qualities, because there is no safe way to protect a dog from contracting any of the various strains of the illness. But some veterinarians feel there is a chance that the vaccine can reduce the severity of the illness and possibly limit its spread.
Long-term harmful effects of giving a dog Bordetella vaccine include permanent damage to the dog’s immune system, which increases the dog’s susceptibility to chronic, debilitating diseases affecting the blood, endocrine organs, joints, skin, central nervous system, liver, kidneys and bowel.
Whenever possible, Bordetella vaccine should be avoided for two reasons:
There have been outbreaks of kennel cough in a multi-dog setting (private or commercial) in which only the vaccinated dogs came down with the illness. The likelihood of getting kennel cough from a vaccine is so high some dog training classes and boarding facilities will refuse a dog for several weeks after a Bordetella vaccination, for fear the dog will come down with the virus and pass it on to the other dogs.
As counterintuitive as it sounds, many dog venues still require Bordetella vaccine. Bordetella vaccination is required if you board your dog, or if she plays in dog parks or runs, or participates in obedience classes or competitions; you may wish to reconsider whether you really need your dog to participate in situations where this controversial vaccine is mandated.
WARNING: If your vet routinely gives Bordetella vaccinations—a common practice before the negatives were known—not only should you refuse them for your puppy, but you might want to reconsider the vet you have chosen. There are so many good veterinarians out there who stay abreast of changes and developments in their field. Why stay with a doctor who practices outdated medicine that could harm your pet?
THE LYME DISEASE VACCINE
Originally developed to protect against the tick-borne Lyme disease, this vaccine has been discredited. The original vaccine actually gave some dogs the disease, which has the unfortunate trait of recurring for life, and caused kidney failure in others. This was a “whole-cell” vaccine that, astoundingly, some vets still use. There is a newer vaccine made with recombinant DNA technology, which is similar to the Lyme vaccine for humans that was taken off the market when the unfortunate people who were first given the vaccine then developed not just Lyme disease, but arthritis and other serious ailments.
Dogs can still get Lyme disease after vaccination, since it is only 75 percent effective—and yet many vets in the Northeast apparently still give Lyme disease vaccine, despite its proven risks; puppies are especially vulnerable because of their still-undeveloped immune systems. Any vet who suggests giving the Lyme vaccine to a dog of any age, without explaining all of these risks, may be placing that dog in jeopardy.
High-risk dogs are considered candidates for the vaccine—hunting or tracking dogs, dogs who run free in tick-infested areas like woods or tall grasses—but why risk a fine working dog’s health? Chemical prevention is still the best medicine for Lyme disease—either a Preventic collar or one of the monthly applications. Your eyes and fingers are the most efficient tick prevention for your dog. Hang a firm bristled brush by your back door—or keep it in the car if that’s how you take your dogs walking—and give her a brisk brushing from head to tail when you get back to remove any superficial ticks. For the next 15 or 20 minutes keep an eye on the dog’s head and back to see whether any ticks emerge from her coat. Sometime before the end of the day, run your fingers through her hair or over her coat to feel for any ticks that might have survived your earlier investigation.
VI. ADVERSE REACTIONS TO DOG VACCINES
The vaccines that are conventionally given to dogs can cause the same bad reactions as any chemicals, drugs, or infectious agents. Reactions can happen immediately or up to 48 hours later. Delayed reactions in a dog can occur from three to 45 days after receiving the vaccines, but the peak window of time for an adverse reaction is 10 to 20 days. Symptoms include fever, stiffness, sore joints, polyarthritis (lameness moving from leg to leg), abdominal tenderness, nervous system disorders, susceptibility to infections, blood problems like hemorrhages or bruising, and high fevers.
IF YOUR DOG HAS REACTED BADLY TO VACCINES IN THE PAST
Dogs who have had allergic (anaphylactic) reactions in the past need special care. In fact, the AVMA recommends avoiding revaccination for such dogs because the risk of an anaphylactic reaction is greater than the risk of infection.
YOUR DOG’S BAD REACTION TO RABIES VACCINE
Some dogs get a lesion (sore) from a rabies vaccination, usually at the injection site. This lesion usually appears three to six months after the rabies vaccination, but the skin can remain affected for months or even years.
Localized hair loss at the injection site has been observed in Poodles, Yorkshire Terriers, and Silky Terriers. Hair loss may occur in circular areas, with the newly exposed skin turning darker; the skin may also become thickened and scaly. Since the rabies vaccine is required by law, you have no choice but to vaccinate your dog. One strategy to try for mitigating your dog’s adverse reaction is changing vaccine manufacturers: find out which company made the vaccine that affected your dog and ask your vet use a different manufacturer next time around.