Vaccinating too much?

Q.My friend told me that I should not be vaccinating my dog every year. What’s up with vaccinations? Is it safe not to vaccinate every year? What should I do?

A. Your friend may be right, at least, for some vaccines. There are two things have been ingrained in the teaching of veterinarians for years: 1) dogs should eat dog food and 2) dogs and cats should be vaccinated yearly for every disease imaginable. There is actually a lack of scientific evidence to support the current practice of annual vaccination and increasing documentation showing that over-vaccinating has been associated with harmful side effects.

While vaccinations is one of the 20th century’s greatest advances in medicine, saving thousands of lives by preventing childhood infectious disease, there is mounting evidence that these vaccinations may play a role in the increasing incidence of autoimmune diseases and even the cancers that we see today. Prime examples are the association of autoimmune hemolytic anemia with vaccination in dogs and vaccine-associated sarcomas in cats -- both of which are often fatal. The vaccine contains adjuvants that boost the body’s response to the altered vaccine materials (proteins derived from the infectious organism). This material is injected into the body, which can lead to local trauma and release of tissue antigens at the site of injection. As a result, the adjuvant can stimulate the body’s immune response at these released body antigens as well as the vaccine material.

Except for rabies vaccine, the yearly revaccination recommendation on vaccine labels is only a recommendation without supporting data of long-term immune studies. It is not a legal requirement. Only rabies vaccines have required duration, immunity studies that must be carried out before they can be licensed in the United States. Even with rabies vaccines, a three-year duration of immunity product may also be labeled and sold as a one-year product. Legally, rabies vaccination is required in many areas and the accepted duration of immunity varies greatly. Working with local governments to achieve reasonable vaccination schedules for rabies is the only way to change this. On the other hand, your veterinarian can provide documentation to bypass this legal requirement, if vaccinating your pet could be medically unsafe.

Unfortunately, no one knows the real need for vaccination, but yearly boosters for all infectious diseases are overkill. Clearly, in many cases, the vaccinations are not necessary and giving them may cause problems. The risk of not giving vaccinations (once the healthy young dog has been adequately immunized) is becoming less than the risk of giving them. What appears to be the prevailing view is that dogs and cats should receive their puppy and kitten series against the major canine and feline diseases. These vaccinations should be repeated at 1 year of age. After that time, only necessary vaccines should be given. That includes, of course, the legally required rabies vaccinations.

Your local veterinarian is your best resource to develop a vaccination program tailored for your pet. The health status and infectious disease risks of your pet should be considered in the selection of a vaccination program. Infectious disease risk may with differing localities. In addition, recent studies clearly indicate that not all vaccines perform equally.

Once puppihood is over, further parvovirus vaccination is probably unwarranted. The disease in adults is mild and self-limiting. Intranasal vaccination for bordetella may provide life-long immunity (although more frequent intranasal vaccination may not carry the same risk as injected vaccines). In areas where Lyme's disease or leptospirosis are not prevalent, vaccination for these agents seems unnecessary. On the other hand, vaccination for canine distemper and canine hepatitis virus is probably warranted at some time while the animal ages. There are currently 3 ways to do this: 1) monitor titers and vaccinate when the IgG antibody titer drops below 1:50 (although this may not be any more valid than guessing), 2) revaccinate when the dog gets 10-12 years old (which in many cases will be adequate), or 3) play the odds and vaccinate every 3 years.

Recent studies with the major feline vaccines indicated that the worse vaccine had, at least, a three-year duration of immunity in health cats. The best vaccine protected cats for over eight years. The American Association of Feline Practitioners as a result recommends a three-year vaccination schedule for cats.

No one wants their pet to contract a preventable disease, yet most healthy animals do not need vaccination as often as is currently practiced. Immunodeficient animals may not respond adequately regardless of the vaccination schedule. Discuss these options with your veterinarian and make an informed choice about vaccination. Hopefully, your veterinarian will have thought and struggled with these issues and be able to support your decision about your pet's health.

Remember: Just because you pet does not need yearly vaccinations, they should still have a yearly check-up by your veterinarian!

Dr. Roger Clemmons

Disclaimer: The information presented here is for educational usage. It is not an endorsement of any particular product. You will need to discuss the measures and natural alternatives with your veterinarian. If the problem worsens or new signs develop, discontinue medication and seek appropriate veterinary medical care. This material represents the views of the author and does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of anyone else.

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Last updated 28 August 2002