Your Veterinarian: Still the Best Source for Vaccination Advice

Sep 1, 2015

Routine vaccinations are recommended for all pets, including even those that rarely go out of the home, or are indoors-only. Your veterinarian has information about each of the diseases against which vaccines are available, and can help you determine which ones are needed, based on the lifestyle of the pet (indoors versus outdoors), age (puppies and kittens need boosters to build long-term immunity), health status (unhealthy, healthy) and species (dog and cat).  

There are core vaccines, and these are the basic ones to which all appropriately assessed pets should be given. These include diseases such as distemper, parvovirus, and rabies. There are also non-core vaccines and these are given based on assessed lifestyle risk. These include vaccines such as Lyme (tick-borne), leptospirosis (water borne bacteria), and bordetella (part of the kennel cough complex). For example, bordetella would be given to those dogs going to boarding facilities.

Veterinarians are trained to advise you about vaccines based on many determinants, and can support the pet and advise you if any adverse reaction should occur (these are rare). Vaccines vary widely in their formulations; some have adjuvants, others don't; some are subunit, others whole; some modified live and some killed; some administered intranasal others given by injection, so there is wide variation between the products that your veterinarian can discuss with you.  There are online sources for vaccines and vaccine information but these should not be relied upon instead of the veterinarian since they know YOUR pet, and vaccination decisions are individual. 

Some online discussion boards may suggest at times that vaccines are unsafe and that they are unnecessary, or there may be friends or others who advise in this manner, but this advice is not credible-is not supported by scientific facts. Though side effects may occur, and these are obviously concerning, note that any drug also has potential for side effects, including common over-the-counter ones you buy for yourself at local pharmacies or are prescribed. Modern vaccines are carefully formulated to reduce the chance of side effects. 

There are of number of good reasons for a recommendation to vaccinate:

  • To begin with, an outdoor cat that receives vaccines according to the manufacturer's schedule receives antibody protection against serious or lethal infections. This is important since cats will inevitably contact other cats directly (bite, scratch, mutual grooming), or via saliva, urine or sneeze and cough droplets, or may contact surfaces-these are all exposures that can result in disease transmission. The level of protection your cat has against the most serious diseases will gradually decline if vaccines are not provided regularly. As a result, your cat will be unprotected should he or she encounter serious infectious diseases against which the vaccines protect.
  • Few indoor cats actually remain indoors 100 per cent of the time. Some cats may escape outdoors or be locked out accidentally. Others may need to be boarded in a kennel at some future date, and no kennel business will accept boarders without current vaccinations. Still others may go visiting when their owners do, or be introduced to new animals when visitors to their homes bring their pets with them. 
  • Wildlife sometimes enter homes; bats can fly through open windows, mammals such as raccoons and skunks may help themselves to flap type pet-door entries, and sometimes even break a screen to get into the house to check out what's cooking, if they are infected with certain diseases, this introduces risk to the home.
  • Dogs that attend dog parks, boarding facilities, shows, trials, and service dogs or visitation dogs will need to be fully protected due to the increased contact with other animals, therefore, more at risk of exposure to disease from dogs of unknown health and vaccine status.
  • Parvovirus is exceptionally resistant to breakdown on surfaces in the outdoor environment or even inside where dogs congregate, and so vaccination against this deadly disease is essential since the virus is everywhere.
  • Reduced population vaccination rates recently have exposed pets to outbreaks of diseases that used to be prevalent but were not for many years while vaccination rates were high-distemper is an example, so it is important to keep group ("herd immunity") at high levels to prevent outbreaks of major diseases for which there are vaccines (recent cases of measles due to low population vaccination rates in people in parts of Canada recently also illustrates this point well)
  • The occasion will arise when you will need to take your pet to the veterinary hospital, for some medical problem or for a health check. If your pet has not received its vaccines, the visit to the hospital could prove some risk, since there is an increased probability of being exposed to an ill pet at a veterinary hospital. As well, should your pet ever require hospitalization, there would be an added risk if he or she was unvaccinated.
  • Certain infections can be passed from mother to babies, which is devastating. Feline leukemia is an example of this type of situation, and leukemia testing and vaccination can help to stop this type of disease transmission, saving many young cat's lives. 
  • Lyme disease is carried into the host by tick bites, and causes a variety of signs. Though only 5% of dogs develop signs leading to a diagnosis of the disease, in people it is hard to diagnose and incidence of active infection are higher-so more serious overall in people. Vaccination of dogs prevents most of them from being infected, thus avoiding an enlarging dog-based reservoir of infection for local environmental/tick spread.
  • Leptospirosis vaccination will help keep the dog healthy, and this is another disease that can affect people as well, and is difficult to diagnose, so best to keep those dogs exposed to potentially contaminated water protected.   
  • In some areas of Canada, rabies vaccination of pets is mandatory, it is required by law, and proof may be necessary in order to purchase a dog license in your community. Rabies has essentially, a 100% death rate so vaccines are very important to reduce risk to all. Wildlife continues to be a reservoir for the virus so the threat will always exist. 
  • Without an annual wellness check-up, minor medical problems could turn into serious illnesses. To determine which vaccines your pet should receive, talk to your veterinarian. Some vaccines may not be given annually, but the "check-up" examination should be provided to the pet regardless of whether vaccines are due or not. 
  • Routine vaccinations are recommended because of the increased level of protection they provide to pets, but note they are not 100% protective in all cases; efficacy varies by product.

(Revised August 2015)