Vaccinating your dog against disease is becoming the norm. However there are still questions owners want answered.

The first question to ask yourself is: “What should I vaccinate my dog against?” The other is “Why should I vaccinate my dog in the first place?”

An ounce of prevention

Modern veterinary medicine is all about prevention. It is preferable that an animal isn’t exposed to sickness whenever possible. Additionally, it prevents heartbreak and grief for owners and in monetary terms is cheaper than a cure, which can often be expensive.

The argument: “I haven’t seen distemper for years” is a bit of a Catch 22. I haven’t seen distemper for years either, but the reason is that we have been vaccinating against it for the past 30 years and the vaccines work. If we stop vaccinating as vigilantly as we do, the disease is likely to return.

The famous five

There are five different types of disease that can be prevented by vaccination.

  1. Distemper. It is rare these days, however older practitioners used to see four to five cases a day. The virus is usually fatal. Symptoms include coughing, diarrhoea, seizures, loss of balance and blindness.
  2. Hepatitis. This is another disease that can be fatal. When it isn’t, hepatitis usually results in permanent and irreversible liver damage. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain.
  3. Parvovirus. Known to cause fatal diarrhoea, the types of dogs that are especially susceptible are puppies, dogs that are immunosuppressed, dogs that are exposed to a large number of other dogs and geriatric dogs. There is also a less common cardiac pathogenicity for this disease.
  4. Parainfluenza. A viral component of kennel cough, this disease is not fatal, however it can cause debilitation that leads to other fatal diseases. Even with treatment there will usually be permanent damage to the respiratory system. This is a highly contagious and extremely debilitating disease.
  5. Bordetella bronchiseptica. This is a bacterial component of kennel cough.

You will hear people talk about C3, C4, and C5 vaccines. A C3 vaccine (known as ‘core’) protects against parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. C4 also protects against parainfluenza, while C5 protects against the aforementioned diseases as well as bordetella bronchiseptica.

A C5 vaccination is the requirement for most boarding kennels. It should also be used for dogs such as show dogs, which are exposed to other dogs and people.

When and how often?

The vaccination program can vary slightly depending on the age of a puppy, but in general a C3 vaccination should be given at six to eight weeks.

The second shot is given at around 12 to 14 weeks, and I recommend a C5 vaccine, especially for show dogs exposed to a number of other people and animals. The third puppy shot is done at 16 to 18 weeks and I again recommend that it be a C5 vaccination. Boosters should be given to adult dogs, particularly show dogs, on a yearly basis.

What are the risks?

The mammalian body is extremely complex and makes the most modern computer look like an abacus. As a result, occasionally a dog might still contract a disease even though it has been vaccinated. This happens in circumstances when there is immunosuppression. A vaccine may also prove ineffective if at the time of vaccination the dog has a fever, is being treated with steroids or has another disease.

High levels of maternal antibodies may block a young puppy’s ability to produce its own antibodies; and improper storage and handling of vaccines or incorrect administration will also lead to vaccine failure. If given too close together, vaccines can be blocked by earlier shots.

By the same token, if given too far apart the memory response of the immune system is not properly stimulated by the vaccine.

I often recommend more regular booster shots for show dogs – around every six months – and those that may be exposed to a large number of other dogs.

By Peter Higgins, veterinarian.