Reasonable Expectations VII: Discussion and Open-Mindedness About Your Dog’s Vaccinations

This is the seventh part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through six can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog

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. Gone are the days of behaving like  “Stepford wives” simply because you’ve received a vaccine reminder postcard or email. Vaccinations are no different than any other medical procedure.  They should not be administered without individualized discussion with your veterinarian and consideration of the potential risks and benefits. Please know that having such a discussion with your veterinarian is a perfectly reasonable expectation, and your input is an invaluable part of the vaccine decision-making process.

Consider the following:

• There are currently more than a dozen 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 against 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 vaccine 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:

As your dog’s savvy medical advocate, what can you do to be sure that he or she 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.  Read the chapter called “The Vaccination Conundrum” in Speaking for Spot. It provides detailed discussion about all aspects of canine vaccinations including the diseases they prevent, adverse vaccination reactions, and the topic of vaccine serology (blood testing that helps determine if your dog is truly in need of vaccine booster). The American Animal Hospital Association’s “Canine Vaccine Guidelines” is also an excellent source of information (http://secure.aahanet.org/eweb/dynamicpage.aspx?site=resources&webcode=CanineVaccineGuidelines).
2.  Talk with your veterinarian to 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.  Talk to your veterinarian about vaccine serology.  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 currently no need for a vaccine booster. Serology may make more sense than simply vaccinating at set intervals.
6.  Talk to 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.

What happens if your veterinarian declines vaccine discussion and simply wants to vaccinate based on what he or she thinks is appropriate?  Time to find yourself a new veterinarian who is progressive enough to have a working relationship with people who choose to be a stellar medical advocates for their dogs!  Is your vet willing to have open-minded discussion with you about your dog’s vaccinations?

Best wishes for a happy new year.   

Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of  Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
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
Become a Fan of Speaking for Spot on Facebook 

Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com 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 Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.

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14 Responses to “Reasonable Expectations VII: Discussion and Open-Mindedness About Your Dog’s Vaccinations”

  1. Amy Says:

    I read somewhere that cocker spaniels are prone to immune-mediated hemolytic anemia that can be brought on by vaccination. Is that true? I’ve been doing titres instead of vaccines for my cockers because of that risk.

    One of my cocker pals lost her 3-year-old cocker recently to leptospirosis. Her vet hadn’t vaccinated for that disease because “we don’t have that risk around here.” How would a vet know for sure about that? Is there a registry or something for dog diseases like the CDC has for people? How can the pet parent find out what’s prevalent in their region?

  2. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    Hi Amy,

    You’ve asked some great questions. Cocker Spaniels are definitely predisposed to immune mediated hemolytic anemia (the immune system destroys the body’s own red blood cells), and there is a very small risk that (regardless of breed), a vaccination can trigger the onset of immune mediated hemolytic anemia. It is impossible to predict in advance which dogs will develop this devastating vaccination complication. As mentioned in the blog, all vaccine risks and benefits must be considered (and discussed with your veterinarian) before proceeding with vaccinations or vaccine serology.

    The people best qualified to know if a particular disease exists in a particular region are the veterinarians who work there. It might be wise to check in with a couple of veterinarians as well as those that work at your local 24 hour emergency center.

    Hope this helps.

    Dr. Nancy Kay

  3. Carolyn in Belize Says:

    In 2007, my small dog developed a lump the size of a golf ball not far from the rabies vaccination site. My vet insisted that the lump was unrelated to the rabies vaccination. Months later, it was still there and my dog had a needle biopsy that showed “foreign matter inclusion bodies.” Long story with several vet consultations later, both in Belize and in the USA. Lucky for Maggie, the lump eventually resolved on its own 6 mos. later — just prior to scheduling surgery! I was astonished that the vets I called while in the US either professed to know little about vaccination reactions or suggested that such problems were incredibly rare. Ultimately, my dog was titer tested and found to have adequate antibodies and therefore not vaccinated in 2010. Thanks Dr. Nancy, for bringing this to our attention. The chapter in your book on the subject was a big help in my resolve to find a vet who was conversant and sympathetic to the situation.

  4. Pam Leitt Says:

    Bravo Nancy, for being a progressive vet and helping to educate the public on the vaccination issue. I, also, don’t vaccinate any of my dogs over the age of 9 yr. I came to this decision after discussing it with my vet.

  5. Susan Says:

    I’ve noticed a real shift in vaccinations over the 20+ years of having dogs. The group of vets I go to ask about each individual dogs activities, and then suggest what would be best for that dog.

    And very glad you have returned to the keyboard. Your advice is much appreciated.

  6. Rae Says:

    I have titer-tested my dogs for six years now and they still have significant immune response to the diseases/viruses in the common vaccines. I will continue this practice every year, even though it costs more than the vaccines would. I’d rather have healthier animals than ones compromised by over-vaccination. My vet, while hesitant at first, has found a lot of respect for me over the years because she cannot deny what is before her with my animals. I have six pets and they are all very very healthy. They also eat extraordinarily well, but I believe the vaccine protocol needs to be more widely discussed between vets and clients. The info. is available but not many know about it, and many doubt it, still.

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  8. jill breitner Says:

    Nancy your words are a gift to all of us who love our dogs. Thank you for speaking out on this very sensitive issue of vaccinations. I applaud your candor and continue to recommend your book to all of my clients. Bravo to you!

    ~jill aka shewhisperer

  9. Corgivet Says:

    Well written..I stopped annual vaccinations about 15 years ago ..despite my colleagues dismay..I have yet to experience the dreaded parvovirus or distemper outbreaks they envisioned. I did stop titer testing fr one main reason…although helpful they are not a guarantee for protection..they may begin to drop the day after they were tested.
    Instead, I have settled on what I consider to be the best program for vaccinating dogs ( and cats): 1) treat every animal as an individual as you said..the toy poodle in NYC is different than the hunting lab2) use the best vaccines available not the cheapest ( most are effective for 3 years plus) 4) educate my clients about the pros and cons and 4) be willing to re evaluate my program at any point in time

  10. Tammy Says:

    Thank you for writing this Dr. Kay. You are so wonderful to include this very important topic. I forwarded it to my vet!

  11. Kathie Says:

    I have used titers on my Bernese Mountain Dogs for the past 5 or 6 years. I had some concern that using rabies titers would be a problem for our animal assisted therapy program but the titers are accepted the same as vaccination. Only difference is that they must be done every year. I have also begun doing titers for the core vaccines and had a bit of an uncomfortable experience last year with my then 4 year old Bernese Mountain Dog. My vet explained that we could titer for parvo and distemper and the results were only reported as less than or greater than 1.5 – greater than indicating immunological response and less than indicating poor immunological response. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with not having a number to go by (both for last year and future years for comparison) but there didn’t seem to be a choice. I was less than happy to learn a few months later that not all labs report that way – a good friend had used titers for her dogs and had quantification of each result. When we go in after the new year for her 5 year check I will now know enough to make certain that the samples are sent to a lab that does quantify the results even if it isn’t the normal lab the practice uses.

  12. Jana Rade Says:

    We have a custom vaccination plan which until this year included annual dap boosters. Newly educated this year I brought up the issue with him. Regardless of his convictions he discussed this with us and we ended up running titers which revealed that Jasmine did not need any boosters. So that is quite exciting and we’ll be titering next year again.

  13. Dr. Nancy Kay Says:

    Hi Jana,

    Your note implied that you ran vaccine serology (titers) one year after your dog’s most recent adult distemper/parvovirus vaccination. You certainly can do this if your own peace of mind dictates the need for this, but these blood tests are expensive and not worthy of spending money on until three years following the vaccine. In other words, we know that the adult distemper/parvovirus vaccine provides adequate protection for three years. If the titers are being run for your veterinarian’s sake (to prove that the vaccine protection lasts 3 years) he or she should be the one to pay for the unnecessary serology.

    Hope this helps,
    Dr. Nancy Kay

  14. Jana Rade Says:

    Dear Nancy,

    yes, I realize that. But with his strong conviction and my paranoia simply just changing the schedule to three years was not good enough to either of us to keep peace of mind.

    I’m sure he’d do that if I insisted, but I can certainly sleep better knowing for sure that she indeed has the needed protection. Got it on paper! :-)

    As this was a new thing to me and our vet whom we learned to trust felt otherwise, nothing short of a ‘proof’ wouldn’t have given us enough peace of mind. I would be tossing and turning thinking “what if …”

    Jasmine is very delicate and her body doesn’t seem to follow many rules. It wasn’t all that expensive, much less than I thought reading about how expensive it is. Definitely cheap enough price for peace of mind.

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