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How Do Vaccines Work

By Dr. Greg, DVM
Updated: 2009-09-08 6:17 PM 2603 Views    Category: Health and Behavior
 
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Vaccines are an important part of good pet healthcare. My clients regularly ask me questions about vaccinating their dogs and puppies.
 
What is a vaccine and how does it work?
 
Vaccines are made of millions of “inactivated” or changed viruses that prepare the immune system for the “real thing” and chemicals (adjuvants) that further stimulate the immune system to react. The more the body reacts, the better the protection. However, in rare cases some dogs react too much and experience swelling, get sick, develop an immune disorder, or even go into shock.
 
What would you consider the most important vaccination for dogs?
 
The parvovirus vaccine is very important. It is injected under the skin in young puppies 2-4 times to prepare their immune system so that when they contact the virus on another dog, the grass, dirt, on a sidewalk, street, or our shoes, clothes or hands, they can easily fight it off. Fortunately the vaccine prevents parvo infections in almost all puppies that are given 2-3 vaccines at 2-week to 1-month intervals. Rabies is also a very important vaccine because we can become infected from the bite of a rabid dog or cat. We vaccinate our pets to keep them…and us safe from the disease. A bite or saliva from a rabid racoon, skunk, bat or fox can cause the disease in an unvaccinated animal. Then that unvaccinated animal, could bring rabies home to her family. A rabies vaccine every 3 years prevents the disease. If an unvaccinated animal bites a child or adult, the biter may be euthanized and tested for rabies. In other words, the unvaccinated pet does not have to show any signs of rabies, just has to bite someone, to be euthanized. Remember the incidence of  rabies is not high in pets, just that one case could be deadly. Vaccinated pets that show neurological signs similiar to rabies, or bite someone may be quarantined for 14 days to make sure they do not show any signs of rabies.
 
How many vaccines should be given, and h ow far apart?
This is another good question, and you’ll find that the answers can vary a bit from one source to another. Most vets advise giving 2-3 vaccines, starting at 8 weeks, at 3-week to 1-month intervals, with the last vaccine given after 4 months of age. So if your dog starts the “series” at 12 weeks, he or she can receive the vaccine at 12 and 16 weeks of age. Sometimes we would give another vaccine at 20 weeks in this case, just to ensure a good antibody level or”titer” in the blood. The common series of vaccines given at most vet hospitals is 8, 12, 16 weeks of age. Breeders and producers of pups vaccinate more because they have more risk and lots of puppies that could pass around a dangerous virus in a hurry. It is still a good idea to give the last vaccine at 16 weeks (or 4 months) because this vaccine ensures better protection. Antibodies from the mother can interfere with vaccines before 16 weeks of age. So if a puppy received vaccines at 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, it would still be a good idea to give the “insurance” vaccine at 16 weeks.
 
What should you vaccinate for?
 
Most vets agree that rabies, parvo, distemper and Bordetella (or “kennel cough”) are diseases for which dogs should be vaccinated. Parvo and distemper follow the above schedule and are repeated at 1 year of age, then every 3 years after that. Bordetella is given at 6 months or yearly depending on exposure. What this means is if your dog:
 
  • has monthly grooming appointments,
  • is in dog shows,
  • frequents the dog park,
  • is in doggie day care or boarded often, or
  • is exposed to a number of different dogs that may carry the kennel-cough bacteria
 
then he or she may need the vaccine every 6 months. If you have a house or yard dog that does not go anywhere then a Bordetella vaccine may not even be needed. Leptospirosis is a bacteria spread where livestock, rodents and water are present. If you live in the country, take your dogs hunting or go for runs there, it is a good idea to vaccinate your dog yearly for lepto. One bit of warning, small dogs and those allergic to the vaccine can get painful and nauseous. And finally, if you live in an area where rattlesnakes are common, or visit such an area with your dog, a vaccine may decrease the reaction and expense associated with a rattlesnake bite.
 
Vaccines are lifesavers, but lately have been suspected to cause illness, cancer and death if administered yearly. Research shows that the level of protection or titer lasts for several years in most dogs and cats after the series given when they were puppies or kittens. For this reason, most veterinarians have begun giving vaccines at 3-year intervals, and even consider vaccinating depending on the risk. All dogs need the “core vaccines” distemper/ parvo/rabies, but Bordetella, lepto, rattlesnake, and lymes are given according to risk. I hope this information will help you keep your pet safe and healthy.
 

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Dr. Greg, graduated from UC Davis Veterinary School in 1980, has been an animal lover my whole life. As a teenager, he worked at a pet shop and vet hospital, then attended community college. Since then he has practiced at Gilroy Veterinary Hospital. For the last ten years he has become fascinated with nutrition and health, and has written a book, Dog Dish Diet, available at the website http://www.dogdishdiet.com.
 
 
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