By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
Among pet caretakers few topics are more debated than that regarding the vaccination of dogs (and cats). How often do dogs need shots? Which shots are essential and which are overkill? Is the vaccination of dogs and cats even necessary? In years past, vaccinations for all sorts of diseases were recommended to be given annually ... year after year. That protocol was followed by veterinarians because they were told to do so by the vaccine manufacturers in order to ensure optimal immunity for as many pets as possible.
If a veterinarian independently decided not to follow the label recommendations on the vaccines, and an animal subsequently developed a disease that the veterinarian decided vaccination for wasn't needed, the veterinarian was vulnerable to being sued. Ethically and legally the veterinarian must follow label recommendations for the administration of biologicals.
In recent years, the vaccine manufacturers have been under some pressure to show data that truly demonstrates a need for annual vaccinations for dogs (and cats). Part of the drive for reconsideration of vaccine protocols has been coming from Holistic veterinary practitioners, many of whom believe that repeated vaccinations diminish the animal's immune resources and can actually create disorders such as degenerative joint diseases, immune mediated disorders such as Lupus, and can actually depress the animal's ability to ward off diseases "naturally". A few holistic veterinarians believe that all vaccines are harmful.
On the other hand, there are veterinarians -- from general practitioners to research scientists with advanced degrees in immunology -- who contend that vaccinations are a modern marvel, responsible for saving uncountable animal lives ... just as vaccines have helped rid the world of savage human diseases such as smallpox and polio.
So how is today's dog and cat caretaker going to make an informed decision about their own pet's vaccine needs, including how often to vaccinate?
I will share a recent email I received from a pet caretaker expressing just such a dilemma ...
Dear Dr. Dunn,
I was wondering if you would share with me your opinion about yearly shot or shots for my Yorkie. He will be one year old soon and has had all his shots to date. I read on a Yorkie site the opinions of three Veterinarians who expressed that dogs only need shots two or three times in their entire life.
Thank you for your help with this question. N. H.
Dr. Dunn's response:
The problem is this: Most dogs will hold protective immunity longer than a year when given vaccines (but there are variables). So when a veterinarian sees a dog in practice and the owner asks "Does my dog need that Distemper or Parvo vaccine this year?" the veterinarian has no way of knowing what the dog's immune status is for those diseases (although there are vaccine titer blood tests available that can tell if the pet is still immune to the disease it was vaccinated for previously). You and the doctor can only guess.
What if you skip a few years and in fact the dog's immune status is low and actually contracts the disease? You would be pretty upset that the veterinarian said "The dog didn't need a vaccine this year." You might even be able to sue the doctor for suggesting that the dog "didn't need a vaccine this year" without having any proof for the veracity of that statement. The veterinarian can only guess what the dog or cat's immune status is.