Dogs can suffer from some nasty diseases, some which cause discomfort and others that can kill. Thankfully, we can protect our dogs from some of these diseases with vaccination.
More than just a jab
Dogs can suffer from a range of nasty diseases, some which cause a lot of discomfort and others that can kill. Thankfully, we can protect our dogs from some of these using vaccination. Vaccination is a great way to give your dog immunity to some of the worst infectious diseases, and make sure they are as safe as they can be.
Vaccination is given as an annual injection, which keeps immunity topped-up and your dog protected. The only vaccination not given by injection is kennel cough. This is given via an annual intra-nasal vaccine – a squirt up the nose! This gets the vaccine right where it is needed to give local immunity.
Although it is important that your dog has a vaccination appointment every year, not all the vaccines will be given at every appointment. This is because different vaccines last for different amounts of time – your vet will be able to tell you about the schedule for your dog. Your dog will need at least one vaccine every year, however, and your pet should have a thorough health check at least once a year as part of their general healthcare. This helps your vet check that no developing health problems can be detected.
Keeping your annual vaccination appointment every year is really important for both you, and your dog. If you would like to learn more about vaccinating your dog, contact your local Companion Care practice.
Once your puppy is 6 - 8 weeks old, they can have their first vaccinations – usually called the primary course. This consists of two or three injections, given 2 – 4 weeks apart. Some puppies will have their first of these vaccinations while they are still with their breeder.
For adult dogs, if you do not know if your dog has had vaccinations previously, or if you know the last injections were more than 15 months ago, your dog will also need to have a primary course of two injections. Adult dogs can start this at any time, but if you know your dog is currently not protected by vaccination, the course should be started as soon as possible. Your vet will check your dog over before administering any vaccines, to make sure there are no clinical reasons not to give the vaccine – for example, a dog already fighting any active infection would need to recover from this before a vaccination was given.
Once any dog has had their initial course of injections, they will only need one injection per year afterwards to keep that immunity ‘topped up’.
A vaccination appointment is much more than a quick injection for your dog – it is you and your vet’s chance to really see how your dog has been doing. Your dog will be weighed, and have a thorough medical exam. Your vet will probably ask you lots of questions about how your pet has been behaving, about any changes, and about specific topics such as their eating and drinking habits. Your vet is trained to spot subtle changes, helping any developing issues be managed as soon as possible. Your vet will also listen to any concerns you may have, and help you manage these.
As well as the thorough exam, your vet will administer the vaccinations. The exact vaccine will differ year on year depending on the vaccine schedule, but all dogs require vaccination against at least one disease annually. Injectable vaccines are combined into a single injection, so your dog only has to have one needle. This is given under the skin at the back of the neck, and is well tolerated by the vast majority of dogs. The infectious tracheobronchitis (kennel cough) vaccine is the only vaccine which is not injectable. This is a liquid which is given as a squirt up the nose – no needles involved!
An alternative to some of the annual vaccinations is titre testing. In dogs which have previously had vaccinations, it is possible to measure the markers of immunity in the blood. Checking these markers annually with a blood test, and giving vaccinations if the levels fall below a likely-protective level, is an alternative to routine vaccinations for some diseases. Your dog would still need an annual vaccination against leptospirosis however, as titre testing is not possible for this disease.
Although titre testing is an alternative to vaccination, it does have drawbacks. As titre testing requires a blood test, there is an increased cost. The results are also not definitive – they are a snapshot of the immune system at a single moment in time, and this means that it is impossible to guarantee the validity of results, or if any immunity will be protective across the next 12 months. Due to this, some kennels and insurers will not accept a titre test result in lieu of vaccination.
If you’re interested in this service please contact your local practice for more information.
What can I vaccinate my dog against?
Infectious Canine Hepatitis is a viral disease which affects the liver, kidneys, eyes and lungs of a dog. It is spread by contact with saliva, urine, faeces, blood or nasal discharge of infected dogs. The urine of an infected dog can be infectious for up to a year, and the virus can survive in the environment for many months.
Signs can vary from slight fever to sudden death. Other signs include loss of appetite, pale gums, conjunctivitis, coughing, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. The disease can develop very quickly and sadly there is no specific treatment; however vets will try and alleviate the signs and dogs can sometimes survive with intensive supportive treatment.
Leptospirosis, often referred to as lepto, is caused by a bacteria not a virus. Dogs can become infected if they come into contact with infected urine, or by contaminated water, so if your dog likes to swim or is partial to drink from stagnant water or canals they can be at risk, especially in areas with high numbers of rats. There are many different strains of leptospirosis and humans can get it as well (called Weil’s disease). It can be fatal in both dogs and humans.
The signs often start 4 to 12 days after exposure to the bacteria. Look out for fever, muscle pain, diarrhoea, lack of appetite, jaundice and lethargy. Leptospirosis primarily affects the kidneys and liver so more serious cases will get kidney and liver failure.
Treatment will usually consists of antibiotics, fluid replacement, controlling the vomiting and other supportive liver treatments. Less severely affected dogs will recover but still carry the bacteria in their urine for months, posing an infection risk to other animals and humans. There are many stains of leptospirosis – the most comprehensive canine vaccine available covers four strains, and is known as the ‘L4 vaccine’.
Distemper virus can be fatal and attacks several body systems including the respiratory and nervous system. Even in dogs which recover from the virus, distemper can cause long term neurological problems. The first signs of distemper are often sneezing, coughing and a mucus from the eyes and nose, followed by fever, lethargy, vomiting, diarrhoea, depression and weight loss. Distemper is sometimes called ‘hard pad’ because the pads of the feet of some affected dogs become very thickened.
The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with fresh urine, blood or saliva, plus sneezing, coughing and sharing food or water bowls.
Sadly there is no known cure for distemper; the only treatment is to alleviate the signs. Even if a dog survives distemper there are often long-term effects such as muscle spasms, epileptic fits and even limb paralysis.
Canine Parvovirus, commonly known as parvo, is a highly contagious viral disease that can be life threatening to your dog. It is most likely to infect puppies up to six months of age, but can affect older dogs as well, especially dogs that have never been vaccinated or are not up to date with their annual vaccinations. Unfortunately outbreaks are still commonly reported in the UK, and a parvo infection can kill.
Parvo is spread by direct contact with saliva or faeces of an infected animal; humans can also carry the disease on their hands and clothing from one dog to another. Usually dogs will have severe vomiting and diarrhoea which is often bloody (haemorrhagic) and this will lead to dehydration. Anorexia, depression and fever are also common signs.
Dogs with parvo will require hospitalisation, often for many days, and will be put on a drip to correct dehydration. Antibiotics will be given to prevent any secondary infections as well as antiviral medication if available. Unfortunately a lot of dogs with parvo won’t survive, even with intensive supportive treatment, which is why it is so important to prevent the disease with vaccination in the first place.
There is good evidence that the vast majority of dogs are protected against viral distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus for three years after the primary course of vaccinations. Similar data exists for panleukopaenia in cats, and for this reason our vets have carefully selected vaccines that allow extended intervals between vaccinations against these diseases.
However, leptospirosis in dogs and feline leukaemia virus in cats are both endemic (everywhere) in the UK. Sadly, protection from these vaccines does not last much beyond 12 months - that is why revaccination against these diseases is recommended on an annual basis.
This means if you look at your vaccination card you’ll see that, while your dog or cat has vaccinations every year, it won’t always be against the same diseases.
Titre testing (blood testing) is available for checking a dog's antibody levels against the core viral diseases at all of our clinics upon request (there is no effective test for leptospirosis). This carries an additional cost above vaccination and involves a blood sample being taken.
An annual visit to the vets also means a chance for a full top to tail health check, giving you and your vet the chance to spot any brewing problems early. Another great reason to get your vaccination appointment booked!
We strongly recommend annual vaccination against leptospirosis. Known as ‘Weils disease’ in people, this disease causes liver and kidney failure in humans and dogs and can kill. While there is always a very small risk of an adverse vaccine reaction this is hugely outweighed by the risk of leptospirosis in dogs. Even dogs which have a very small home range should be protected as the disease is carried by rats, which are found in and around even the tidiest gardens!
The first booster, given at around 15 months of age, is vitally important as it will catch any pet who has failed to respond to their primary vaccination course. Many of the modified live virus vaccines produce a very strong immune response that only needs to be boosted every few years. Other vaccines cannot produce the same level of immunity and require more frequent (often yearly) boosting. This is why your pet may receive a different combination of vaccines from year to year.
Testing antibody levels in the blood is a good way to assess an individual pet’s immunity level against a specific infection, although in dogs this is only reliable for parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus. If antibody levels are found to be high when a booster vaccination is scheduled, then your vet may advise you to delay the administration of the booster. Since this will be outside the licensed use of the vaccine, this deviation from vaccine protocol is termed ‘off-licence’.
Unfortunately it is impossible to fully protect your pet from exposure to diseases. Pets can escape; some diseases can live in soil on boots and be brought into the house; cattery or kennel stays can expose pets to other animals, and wildlife such as rats can enter homes.
While an indoor pet is safer from disease exposure than an outdoor pet there are advantages to outdoor access in terms of welfare and, while house rabbits and cats can do well indoors, all dogs need outdoor exercise as part of their regular routine.
Full vaccination provides protection in all circumstances – safest all round!
The number of diseases for which there are now licensed vaccines in the UK has increased significantly over recent years. Vaccines are considered either ‘core’ or ‘non-core’. Core vaccines protect against serious diseases that are likely to be widespread within a region, whereas non-core vaccines are only given to pets when there is a specific risk of infection.
Your vet will advise you on the risk of non-core diseases and if it would be beneficial for your pet to have them. This includes diseases such as kennel cough for dogs and Chlamydophila for cats.
A combination vaccine is available to protect rabbits against two fatal infectious diseases, myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD). Myxomatosis is a highly infectious and usually fatal viral disease that causes swelling and inflammation of the mucous membranes and discharge around the eyes. RHD is another extremely contagious condition with a high mortality rate. Vaccination should be considered for any rabbit that spends time outside.
Another strain of RHD, RHD2, has also been spreading in the UK. There are RHD2 vaccines available and it is now recommended all rabbits are also vaccinated against RHD2 as this can also cause sudden death in rabbits.
The only alternative to vaccination is to prevent exposure to disease. This means keeping your dog, cat or rabbit isolated from any other pet or animal that could be infected or be a carrier of a disease against which vaccination would normally have been given. Some infections, e.g. parvovirus, can enter the household on inanimate objects such as grooming implements, food materials, clothes, shoes and hands. Other diseases, such as myxomatosis, can be transmitted by biting insects.
While you may, technically, be able to limit your pets contact with these diseases there may be welfare concerns with the lifestyle that would be required for your pet for this to occur.
Using titre testing to check levels of immunity annually after the initial vaccination course can reduce the need for vaccinations, but some diseases cannot be tested for in this way and so routine vaccination against these diseases is still recommended.
Whether to vaccinate elderly pets or not has more to do with their activity and likely exposure to disease than their age. For example, if your cat never comes into contact with other cats and you are not going to introduce any new cats or kittens into your household, then the benefits of vaccination may be limited.
It must be borne in mind that the immune system of an elderly animal is less robust, so if they are likely to be exposed to infection then continued vaccination is all the more important.
Vaccination has prevented serious diseases and saved the lives of thousands of dogs, cats and rabbits in the UK. However, any veterinary procedure, no matter how commonly it is performed, carries some level of risk. When deciding what is best for your pet it is vital to balance the benefits of vaccination against the risks. For the majority of pets the benefits far outweigh the risks. Your veterinary team can help you understand the benefits and risks, and help you to decide upon the best strategy for your pet as part of an overall preventative healthcare programme.
Vaccination is not a completely risk-free procedure. In the majority of individuals, however, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks. Vaccination reactions are thankfully rare, with adverse events being reported once every 200-250 vaccinations given.
The vast majority of these reactions are mild and short-term, and indicate that the vaccine is effectively stimulating the immune system. Common signs reported are swelling at the injection site, mild fever, tiredness and lack of appetite lasting 24-48 hours.
Given that illnesses can occur at any time, they may sometimes develop shortly after vaccination; this does not mean that the vaccine caused the disease. There have been a number of studies investigating whether diseases in which the immune system malfunctions, such as haemolytic anaemia in dogs, may be more common in the months following vaccination (when the immune system is being stimulated), than at other times. To date these studies have not shown a significant link, but a previous history of immune-mediated disease should be taken into account when deciding on a vaccination schedule for an individual pet.
If you have any concerns about your pet’s wellbeing following vaccination, always contact your veterinary practice.
It is very rare for a vaccination to be associated with a severe side effect. One very rare side effect is the development of an ‘injection-site sarcoma’. These occur in up to 60 cases per million vaccinations.
An injection site sarcoma is a hard lump that develops where your cat has been injected, usually on the scruff of the neck. They are quite commonly reported in the US, but are very rare in the UK. The vaccines most commonly associated with sarcoma development are those protecting against feline leukaemia virus and rabies.
A concept that is widely circulated online is that ‘over-vaccination’ will cause disease, sometimes months or years later. This is termed ‘vaccinosis’. People who promote the concept of vaccinosis suggest over-vaccination is responsible for a wide range of conditions, from lethargy to lameness to kidney disease. However, there have been no published papers that support this theory and this view is not supported by the vast majority of veterinary professionals.
Pets cannot get autism, and there is no proven link between vaccination and autism in humans. Therefore there is no risk of your pet developing autism from vaccination.
It is very easy to become complacent about vaccination when diseases like distemper or feline infectious enteritis are now rare in the UK. If vaccination rates drop below a certain level, however, a disease outbreak can occur with disastrous consequences — for example the measles epidemic in Wales that resulted in the death of a child.
Owners should recognise that vaccination protects against unpleasant and severe diseases that, even with all our advances in veterinary care, can still be fatal.
Importantly some diseases, such as leptospirosis, are not just transmitted pet-to-pet and are picked up in the environment. For these diseases there is less ‘herd immunity’.