Picture this: You’re sorting through the mail and find a reminder (like this magazine!) that it’s time to take your pets to the veterinarian for a checkup and vaccinations. You call to make the appointment and, as you discuss the details, your pets look at you quizzically—then run and hide behind the sofa. Did they actually understand the v word—veterinary? Or the other v word—vaccinations?
Hopefully, the above description is more accurate when describing a cartoon pet like Garfield than it is with your own pet. In reality, most dogs and cats don’t fear needles and don’t really mind receiving injections. This is a good thing, because annual or semiannual checkups with appropriate vaccinations are critical to keeping pets healthy.
A BIT OF HISTORY
Why is this preventive care, especially vaccinations, so important? Vaccines have been used to protect humans and animals against infectious diseases for more than 200 years. In fact, many people consider vaccination the greatest public health success in history.
To put it simply, a vaccine contains a very weak version of a virus, bacterium, or other germ that would otherwise cause disease in its original form. Vaccination takes advantage of the immune system, which is responsible for fighting off infectious organisms. By giving a pet an inactive or partial form of an infective agent, that animal develops immunity to future exposure—protection that can last for months or years.
For some infections, additional vaccinations—or boosters—are necessary for ongoing protection. Puppies and kittens need boosters every few weeks because immunity from their mothers can prevent a good response to a single vaccination. When animals are born, they receive protection against many infectious diseases when they nurse colostrum, or first milk. The protection is only temporary, however, and generally disappears between 2 and 5 months of age.
We’re fortunate to have effective vaccines for some of the most serious and even deadly diseases that affect cats and dogs. Rabies virus infection is almost always fatal, but proper vaccination is nearly 100 percent effective in preventing disease, even if a dog or cat has contact with a rabid wild animal. Parvoviral enteritis (often called parvo) affects both cats and dogs and can cause severe illness or death. But vaccination protects against this heartbreaking disease. Cats can be vaccinated for feline leukemia, a virus that leads to illnesses including cancer. And canine diseases like distemper and infectious hepatitis, which were once common, now are rare thanks to widespread vaccination.
Veterinarians recommend different vaccines for dogs and cats depending on many factors, including geography and lifestyle. Some infections, such as Lyme disease, are common in certain areas of the country and rare in others. Your pet’s lifestyle also can play a role in deciding which vaccines are necessary. For example, a dog that attends doggie day
care has different needs than that of a dog that rarely leaves the yard and has little contact with other dogs. Why? Just like people, pets can pass illnesses to each other. For this reason, social pets—such as those boarding or attending day care—are more at risk for contracting disease. In fact, boarding facilities often require dogs that will be boarding to get certain vaccinations, including vaccines to prevent kennel cough and canine influenza.
Social pets—such as those boarding or attending day care—are more at risk for contracting disease.
To determine which vaccines are right for your pet, your veterinarian and members of your pet’s healthcare team will ask you questions about your pet and will consider past health history. One strategy many veterinarians use for selecting the right vaccines is to divide all available vaccines into two categories: core and noncore.
Core vaccines are recommended for all dogs and cats because the diseases are serious, widespread, or not easily treatable. Noncore vaccines are given more selectively and depend on how serious the diseases are, whether they occur in the pet’s area, whether the pet’s lifestyle warrants them, or if they can be successfully treated. For a list of core vaccines for dogs and cats, as well as examples of noncore vaccines for pets, see the table above.
Another element of vaccinations your veterinarian considers is frequency. Recently, veterinarians have gained a better understanding of long-term immunity and the memory response, which helps immune systems recognize and respond to infections that occurred in the past. We now realize that some adult animals may be fully protected for at least three years after vaccination for some (but not all) diseases. Most U.S. states and localities allow 3-year rabies vaccines for both dogs and cats, and other core vaccines may likewise result in long-term protection. Your veterinarian will have the most current information available and be able to explain the best program for the unique needs of your pets.
PROTECTING YOUR PETS
Obviously, the goal of customizing a vaccination program is to keep your pet healthy and safe. But are vaccinations safe? You may have heard that vaccines are harmful or can lead to illness in pets. However, there is very little reason to worry.
Modern technology has led to extremely safe and effective vaccine products. Side effects are possible in cats and dogs after any vaccination, but the most common effects are minor pain or stinging after the injection or mild fever and lethargy. Fortunately, these reactions rarely require treatment and improve within 12 to 24 hours. Of course, there can be more serious side effects, such as swelling around the eyes, head, or neck; breaking out in a rash; vomiting and diarrhea; or significant depression. If these occur, call or visit your veterinarian right away.
In very rare instances, animals may go into shock or even collapse after a vaccination, but this severe reaction is seen very soon after the injection and your veterinarian will be able to perform emergency care. Long-term side effects may include localized inflammation or a lump where the vaccine was given, and you should contact your veterinarian if you notice swelling or any other abnormality. Only a small percentage of dogs and cats—in general less than 1 percent—have an abnormal reaction to vaccination. Your veterinarian can discuss risks and benefits and answer any questions you might have.
These days, most modern veterinary clinics emphasize regular wellness appointments for pets instead of vaccine-only visits.
Vaccines are an important part of any wellness appointment for your pet—but they aren’t the only part. These days, most modern veterinary clinics emphasize regular wellness appointments for pets instead of vaccine-only visits. Why? Because dogs and cats can hide early signs of illness, and because it takes highly trained veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and staff members to perform detailed medical histories, physical examinations, diagnostic testing, and other procedures to ensure good health. Another reason to keep up with regular veterinary care is that dogs and cats age more rapidly than humans, and changes can occur in a short time period.
So keep up-to-date on your pets’ well visits, even if they feel a bit of anxiety on the car ride to the veterinary office. We all want the best for our pets, and visiting the veterinarian on a regular basis and keeping up with recommended vaccinations goes a long way in ensuring long, healthy lives.