one-shot deal? the controversy around annual vaccines

Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Dec 05 2013

Vaccines are nothing new in veterinary medicine (or human medicine, for that matter), but the way we are using vaccines has been evolving over the last decade.

Vaccines are so important for our pets’ health, both for individual pets as well as for pet population as a whole. That’s because by vaccinating our pets, we reduce the risk of infecting other pets. And for one vaccine – the rabies vaccine – not only are we protecting our pets, but we are also protecting ourselves against a deadly disease.

Vaccines protect our pets against diseases, many of which cause severe illness and even death. The risk of a vaccine causing serious side effects is extremely small, but individual pets may be more sensitive than others. Severe reactions can and do occur in a very small population of pets, but the benefits that vaccines provide are worth that risk in our dog and cat population as a whole.

Vaccines, however, are not without their controversies. Certainly there are people who decline vaccines for their pets and even their children, but these people are without a doubt putting their two- and four-legged family members at risk for debilitating or deadly disease. Other pet owners question whether or not we are over-vaccinating our pets, and I think it is an important and valid question.

The answer, it turns out, is that yes, many veterinarians believe that we (as a group) may be over-vaccinating our pets. But today, we are armed with scientific research that proves many of the vaccines we give have a duration of immunity much longer than we previously thought. That means that some vaccines we have been giving every year actually work much longer in our pets’ systems.

Think about what happens if you sustain a puncture-type wound. The classic example is stepping on a rusty nail, but a dog bite also qualifies. You go to the doctor or emergency room, and they ask you if you’ve had a tetanus shot in the past 5 years. If you have, great. If not, you get a booster to protect you. That’s right – 5 years! And think about those MMR vaccines your kid gets. YOU don’t get them anymore, because your body is equipped to deal with those infections because of your childhood vaccines.

So, when thinking about veterinary vaccines, it’s right to wonder why our pets get vaccinated every year. In fact, vaccine protocols are changing for both cats and dogs. Several core vaccines can and should be given every 3 years instead of yearly, including the feline and canine distemper virus vaccines and, in some cases, the rabies vaccine.

Another way that vaccine protocols are changing is by tailoring which vaccine a pet gets based on their stage of life or the lifestyle he or she leads. A hunting dog who runs through lakes and tall grass may be exposed to Lyme disease and leptospirosis, while a Chihuahua who lives in a high rise and travels in his mom’s purse is unlikely to have the same risk. The Chihuahua probably doesn’t need protection against Lyme disease or leptospirosis because he isn’t exposed.

There are still a few vaccines with a duration of immunity that requires annual dosing, but if your pet is still getting every vaccine every year, it’s time to have a discussion with your veterinarian about whether that vaccine protocol is right for you.

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