Dog Vaccinations:
Are We Over-Vaccinating Our Canine Companions?

The following article on dog vaccinations is adapted from the article I wrote for the May 2009 issue of Natural Dog magazine.

dog vaccinations dog being vaccinated

My dog, Chase, is a “natural dog”. He’s on a raw diet. He takes herbs to boost his immunity. He has a traditional and a homeopathic veterinarian.

Recently, after he received his annual rabies booster, Chase contracted a urinary tract infection.

Off we went to the homeopathic veterinarian, who informed me that urinary tract infections (UTIs) were common side effects of rabies vaccines. She also informed me that Chase only needed his rabies vaccine every three years, not every year, as my traditional vet had been doing. I was upset, wondering if Chase was being over-vaccinated.

I was not alone. Greater minds than mine have been studying the issue of dog vaccinations for decades.

Dr. Ronald Schultz is among the most noted. Schultz, chair of the Department of Pathobiological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine, has been studying dog vaccinations since the 1970s.

He says that back then they didn’t know much about immunology. Research was based on observation. “Whenever a dog recovered from certain diseases I experimentally induced, I could never re-infect that dog,” he says. “If natural infection causes lifelong immunity, I wondered why vaccines couldn’t do the same.”

Schultz discovered that some canine vaccines could provide lifelong immunity. ( Read Dr. Schultz's results of how long immunity lasts for each of the core canine vaccines ).

So, then, what’s up with those postcards that arrive from our vet each year, reminding us that Fido is due for his yearly boosters?

According to Jean Dodds, DVM, president of Hemopet, a private, non-profit animal blood bank, yearly vaccine reminders are often sent to get people into the veterinarian’s office for checkups.

“Some vaccines should not be given annually. Giving them too often does nothing but put pets at risk,” says Dodds.

Risks from Dog Vaccinations Include:

  • Injection-site tumors (primarily cats)
  • Fever, stiffness and sore joints
  • Vomiting
  • Susceptibility to infections
  • Ear and skin conditions
  • Allergic reactions
  • Behavioral changes
  • Anemia
  • Arthritis
  • Seizures and other neurological events
  • Autoimmune diseases and
  • Liver failure

Side effects from dog vaccinations can occur anywhere from instantly up to several weeks or months later. Vaccines can even cause susceptibility to chronic diseases later in a dog’s life.

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One Pet Parent's Vaccination Story
Lisa LaVallee of Bristol, Connecticut, knows all too well the potential adverse side effects of dog vaccinations. Her nightmare began after her Standard Schnauzer, Jonas (pictured here with Lisa), received his one-year boosters in October 2007.

dog vaccinations Jonas

Three weeks later, Jonas suffered a seizure. A few weeks after that, he had another seizure. It took the vet two days to control the seizures with large doses of Phenobarbital.

Continuing on the Phenobarbital, Jonas remained stable for several months. That changed when LaVallee brought him for additional vaccines in March 2008. Shortly afterwards, Jonas became listless and lethargic.

Jonas was diagnosed with Immune-Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA). Whereas a normal dog’s PCV count (which measures red blood cells) is 40 – 59%, Jonas’s was 8%. He was so anemic he needed a blood transfusion.

The vet told LaVallee that, in his opinion, Jonas’s condition resulted from the vaccines. Jonas was put on a cocktail of powerful medications – which often made him sick – to raise his red blood cell count and control his seizures.

Read more about Lisa and Jonas' vaccination story.

Fortunately, what happened to Jonas is rare, with a reported 30 adverse events per 10,000 dogs vaccinated. And, although we can’t completely eliminate our dogs’ risks of vaccine-related side effects, we can take precautions:

Don’t Begin Puppy Vaccinations Before 8 – 10 weeks
Until a puppy is 14 – 16 weeks old, he carries antibodies passed to him through his mother’s milk. This natural immunity interferes with any vaccines given.

 dog vaccinations puppy being vaccinated

For this reason, Schultz advises beginning vaccination when puppies are between eight-to-10 weeks old, and waiting three weeks between rounds, “so that the puppy receives his last series of shots between 14 and 16 weeks.” Shots should be given at 8, 11 and 14 weeks; 9, 12 and 15 weeks; or 10, 13 and 16 weeks.

Every puppy, Schultz stresses, must be vaccinated with the core vaccines: canine distemper, canine parvovirus, canine adenovirus type 2 and also with a rabies vaccine given as recommended by your State or Province.

Perform Titer Tests
A titer test is a simple blood test to check the strength of a dog’s immune defenses to a disease. “Except where vaccination is required by law,” says Dodds, “all animals can have serum antibody titers measured annually instead of boosters. By titering, we can avoid over-vaccination in dogs with adequate immunity.”

Read Dr. Dodds' required dog vaccinations.

Vaccinate no More than Every Three Years
Schultz recommends that once a dog receives his puppy series and one-year booster, he should not be vaccinated more often than every three years. “If an owner decides that they don’t want to vaccinate ever again, that’s okay,” he says. “But do not vaccinate more often than every three years.” The exception to this is the rabies vaccine, which is given as required by law.

Avoid Vaccine “Cocktails”
According to a 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, giving multiple vaccines per visit increases the risk of adverse side effects.

Use Caution When Vaccinating Sick or Aging Pets
Vaccines may overwhelm the immune system of a sick or older dog, becoming the final insult that triggers a negative reaction. Dodds notes that vaccines are likely to be unnecessary in aging pets, and could prove harmful for those with age-related disorders.

Check Your Breed
Certain breeds, such as Great Danes, Akitas, Weimaraners, white Standard Poodles and most white-coated small breeds are more vulnerable to adverse effects from dog vaccinations. If your dog falls into this high-risk category, discuss options with your veterinarian.

According to Dr. Charles Loops, a homeopathic veterinarian located in Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the past few years, veterinary schools have recommended backing off on yearly boosters. “Schools and professional associations have a more progressive and realistic view than most practitioners,” he says.

“There’s no question about the importance of vaccines,” says Schultz. “But we adopted the attitude that even if the vaccines don’t help, they’re not hurting. Over time we discovered that they can hurt.”

“It’s an educational problem,” adds Dodds. “The public must ask the right questions. No longer should vaccines be considered a ‘one-size-fits-all’ program.”

Lisa LaVallee knows this all too well. Thankfully, with a combination of traditional and homeopathic remedies, Jonas is in remission from the IMHA, and his seizures are under control. However, he can never again be immunized. Says LaVallee, “I will be sure to ask plenty of questions about dog vaccinations before re-vaccinating any of my dogs again.”

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Quick Links:
Required Vaccinations of Dr. W. Jean Dodds
Dr. Schultz's Results of How Long Immunity Lasts for Each of the Core Canine Vaccines
Jonas' Vaccination Story
Share Your Vaccination Story

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