This is a question that comes up time and time again in practice… and with so much focus on (human!) vaccination in the news, we thought we’d take another look at it… So, we’ve assembled a panel of vets to talk about vaccines in dogs.

Is pet vaccination really important in a modern, fairly hygienic, western country?

Laura Waring BVetMed MRCVS: In short yes, in many countries great strides have been made to eradicate or significantly reduce the burden of infectious disease among pets. This reduction in prevalence of disease is due to widespread vaccination programs protecting pets, and therefore reducing the numbers of infections seen. 

Rachel Nixon BA VetMB CertAVP MRCVS: However, research has shown that infections with diseases we are able to vaccinate against including Canine Distemper Virus and Canine Parvovirus have steadily increased in the UK since 2014, meaning that vaccinating your pet is as important as ever. 

Laura: In unvaccinated pets we can still see outbreaks of diseases, for example the potentially deadly parvovirus in dogs.

David Harris BVSc PGCert VetEd FHEA MRCVS: Yes, I’m sure we’ve all seen outbreaks that could have been prevented – and sanitation, while important especially in humans, doesn’t do a great deal to blunt the spread of animal diseases. Are there any factors that people think might actually put us in more danger in the UK?

Rebecca Martin BVSc CertSAM MRCVS: Whilst we live in a relatively clean and developed 1st world country, we are also heavily populated (in terms of both dogs and humans!) This means infectious disease can spread fast. Additionally, some of the infectious diseases we vaccinate against such as parvovirus in dogs, are highly resistant, surviving in the environment for month or even years. Outbreaks may happen rapidly and so maintaining your dog’s immunity at all times is considered preferable.

Lawrence Dodi BVSc MSc MRCVS: The reason we see lower levels of cases for many diseases in western countries is due to the higher rates of vaccination uptake with pets. If we in western countries stop vaccinating our pets, we will start to see cases rise.

David: I think that’s a really important point, actually – the diseases haven’t gone away – as we’ve seen with regular Parvo outbreaks, and occasional Distemper cases. We don’t see them BECAUSE of the vaccines – that’s not an argument to stop vaccinating!

What vaccines do you recommend all dogs receive, and why?

Laura: For dogs I recommend the following vaccinations as part of the core vaccination program: distemper, hepatitis (adenovirus), parvovirus and leptospirosis.

Rebecca: Core vaccinations include those against canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus/hepatitis and canine parvovirus. Given the relatively high take-up of these vaccinations in the UK, these diseases are, fortunately rare. Of these three, however, parvovirus is seen with the most frequency. 

Rachel: I would recommend all dogs receive their ‘core vaccinations’. These protect dogs against severe, life-threatening diseases which all dogs are at risk of, regardless of their circumstances and geographical location. 

In the UK, the core vaccinations protect dogs against:

  • Canine distemper virus
  • Canine hepatitis virus (also known as Canine Adenovirus)
  • Parvovirus
  • Leptospirosis

David: In general I agree, although I think we need to consider the patient’s risk factors and location sometimes as well. What do you think, Lawrence?

Lawrence: This is a question whose answer will vary depending on which country you live in and may change with time based on changing climates and people’s travel. For most dogs in the UK I would recommend uptake of the ‘core vaccines’ i.e. those covering distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis and leptospirosis. I recommend cover for these diseases because we know the vaccines are extremely effective against these diseases that can be lethal even with treatment.

David: So that’s something we all agree on, at least for dogs in the UK! Those core vaccines really are important. It’s worth mentioning that what constitutes a core vaccine will depend on the location. I know that Lawrence and Rachel talked about Lepto being a core vaccine, and it is… here in the UK. The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) don’t list it as “core” for every country in the world, because it doesn’t cause major problems everywhere. But here in the UK, the British equivalent, the BSAVA, do list it, because it’s so common here. 

Rebecca: Protection against the environmental borne bacterial Leptospirosis is also strongly recommended for all dogs, whether living an urban or rural lifestyle. Lepto is often described to owners as “the dog equivalent of Weil’s disease.” Spread through contaminated water or soil and often associated with rodents, it can cause multis-systemic disease with kidney and liver failure or diffuse bleeding issues.

All of these “UK relevant” canine infectious diseases are highly dangerous and potentially fatal. 

Rachel: Unfortunately, we see some of these infections relatively frequently in non-vaccinated dogs, and treatment can be long, costly and is not always successful. Even if pets recover, some are left with ongoing health issues which can result in costly vet bills. In addition, Leptospirosis is ‘zoonotic’, meaning that infection can spread from animals to humans, putting owners at risk of severe illness including liver or kidney failure if their pet catches the infection. 

Laura: The reason I recommend vaccination against these infections is due to their prevalence and presence in the United Kingdom. Distemper is now thankfully much less common that it once was, however, it is not entirely eliminated. Wildlife can act as a vector for disease transfer in some cases, for example leptospirosis. Unvaccinated dogs are at significant risk of illness from these infectious diseases which can prove to be fatal. The risk of serious illness is vastly reduced in vaccinated individuals and populations.

Are there any other vaccines that some dogs might need? How do you decide?

Rachel: ‘Non-core vaccinations’ are a group of vaccinations that are recommended for certain dogs depending on their individual circumstances. I would recommend owners discussing with their vet whether these vaccinations are appropriate for their dog.

Lawrence: Some might argue that kennel cough vaccination fits into this category of extra vaccinations that some dogs might need only if they are going into kennels or in higher risk multi dog groups. It would be prudent to have your dog vaccinated for kennel cough as well even if you don’t use kennels. The kennel cough vaccine covers both bacterial and viral diseases that are not restricted to boarding kennels.

Rebecca: The intra-nasal kennel cough vaccination is often considered a “non-core” vaccination and therefore optional. It is true that for the majority of dogs, the contagious cough associated with “kennel cough” upper respiratory tract infection, is not actually fatal. Highly infectious though, the disease will rapidly spread between dogs who have contact such as at kennels, in day care or even when just out in the park. Some of these establishments will require your dog to have had the vaccination ahead of using their services. The infection may be more problematic for dogs with pre-existing heart or respiratory diseases. At our practice, we offer this vaccination to ALL dogs regardless. 

Rachel: Although typically not life-threatening, kennel cough easily spreads between dogs and causes severe coughing. It typically resolves without treatment, but can cause more marked clinical signs in old/young patients or those with pre-existing respiratory issues. Any dog can catch kennel cough so vaccination should be considered in any dog, particularly those at higher risk of severe complications. However, I would particularly recommend it for dogs who will be mixing with other dogs, for example before going into kennels or training classes, or those attending dog shows.

Laura: The kennel cough vaccination is given to dogs in some cases depending on their lifestyle. Kennel cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease which can easily spread when dogs are housed together in a kennel environment (hence the name), or when coming into close contact with one another. For dogs going to a boarding kennel whilst their owners are on holiday the kennel cough vaccination is normally given, and often required by the kennel. Kennel cough is normally recommended in the case of working dogs who gather in large numbers on shoots, or for competitions and shows. To decide if kennel cough vaccination might be needed, I have a discussion with the owner about the dog’s lifestyle to identify if they are at particular risk. Many owners request kennel cough as part of the annual vaccination program to avoid their dog contracting the infection. 

Rebecca: Importantly, because the vaccination is in part “live” (the bacterial aspect) and is delivered up the nostrils, all humans in the household must be confirmed as healthy (with no underlying immunosuppressive disease) in order for the vaccination to be safely administered. This is because once administered, there may be temporary excretion of the bacteria from the dog’s nose. An immunocompromised individual (compared to a healthy individual), may not have the natural resistance to such low level shedding, and may be vulnerable to disease themselves. 

Lawrence: It would be prudent to have your dog vaccinated for kennel cough as well even if you don’t use kennels. The kennel cough vaccine covers both bacterial and viral diseases that are not restricted to boarding kennels. Ultimately the decision is based on discussion with myself and the client.

David: Yes, because although we’ve focused on kennel cough so far, there are lots of other vaccines available that some dogs might benefit from – but most dogs probably don’t need. What about breeding dogs, or those who travel overseas?

Lawrence: There are certain dogs which may have unique requirements for additional vaccinations and reasons to exempt them from some parts or all vaccinations. In these cases, your vet will be best placed to advise you.

Rachel: Canine Herpesvirus can cause abortion, stillbirth or death after birth in puppies. Vaccination against canine herpes virus is considered in breeding bitches, particularly if they have had abortion or puppy deaths in previous litters. 

Lawrence: Dogs, if travelling outside of the UK, will require additional vaccinations by law for rabies

David: Of course – although we’d remind people checking in from other countries, that in some parts of the world where rabies is endemic (such as most of the continental USA), rabies may be a mandatory vaccination in your location. Even if it isn’t mandatory, personally, I feel that if you live in a rabies-endemic country, you should always vaccinate your dog against rabies. There’s no effective cure once symptoms appear in dogs OR in people. The Milwaukee protocol was once considered a viable treatment option for infected and symptomatic humans, but is now considered to be ineffective, and the early reports of survival are believed to be due to partial seroconversion, possibly due to earlier exposure. Essentially, rabies is to all intents and purposes 100% fatal – so if you have dogs and live somewhere where there’s a chance they could catch it and pass it on to you, your family or your neighbours – get them vaccinated!

Rachel: Rabies is not currently present in the UK, so vaccination is not needed for dogs in the UK. However, it is a legal requirement for pets travelling abroad. 

Rebecca: For dogs who are travelling to mainland Europe (or beyond), vaccination against rabies is also usually a legal requirement.  

David: What do people think about the Leishmania and Lyme Disease vaccines?

Rachel: Although Leishmania has been diagnosed in dogs in the UK that have not travelled abroad, it is extremely rare. The disease is spread by sandflies, which are particularly seen around the Mediterranean and North Africa, particularly in the warmer times of year. I would recommend for owners of dogs travelling abroad to discuss with their vet whether vaccination against Leishmania would be appropriate.

Lyme disease is spread by ticks and is more common in certain geographical areas of the UK. Vaccination is considered for dogs living in areas of the UK with higher rates of the bacteria in the tick population or dogs that travel to these areas, particularly dogs who go walking in areas of woodland or land where deer and sheep have access as these tend to have higher levels of ticks. 

Lawrence: Other areas of the world have unique vaccines rarely given in the UK as the diseases they cover are not endemically present here. Decisions to give these vaccinations would be based on speaking to the owner about where they are going, how long for and when.

David: And once again, that’s the key point isn’t it? As vets, we try to look at the individual dog’s risk factors, and recommend the most appropriate vaccines for them.

How often do you recommend booster vaccination for dogs?

Rachel: After having their initial vaccination course, dogs need regular booster injections to keep their level of immunity topped up.

Lawrence: My recommendation for dog vaccinations is always based on the data provided by the vaccine companies in line with governing veterinary bodies such as the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA). Though vaccination protocols don’t change much year on year, if new data suggests it is appropriate to change the frequency of vaccination up or down, then I change appropriately. The timings for vaccinations are based on studies looking at immunity and when it wanes.

Rebecca: We like to see dogs annually for boosters, but typically, not every disease requires an annual vaccination. “Full” and complete vaccinations are typically given to puppies (the primary course) and at one year of age. Booster vaccination consultations, thereafter, are continued annually, but not every disease is vaccinated against, every year. 

David: This is a really important point. Many owners think that we vaccinate every year for the same diseases – but this isn’t true. Different vaccines give different durations of immunity for different diseases – and actually, vets don’t want to give them more often than necessary.

Laura: I recommend booster vaccinations annually, however there is a 3-year cycle with the vaccination program. This means the dog does not receive the full booster every year. 

Rebecca: Parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus are often just triennial (every 3 years). Annual protection should be maintained for leptospirosis and kennel cough however.

Laura: Leptospirosis is required annually as the immunity to this vaccine is not long lived. Whereas the distemper, parvovirus and hepatitis element are given every 3 years. The annual booster injection also provides a useful opportunity for a physical examination and check-up of the dog.

Lawrence: Currently for dogs after the initial primary course, leptospirosis vaccines are given annually. For the component that has the parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis protection, the dosing after the 1st annual booster is given every 3 years. Kennel cough is an annual vaccination. 

Rachel: Booster injections for canine distemper virus, parvovirus and canine hepatitis virus are usually given every 3 years. Booster injections for Leptospirosis are given every year. 

David: I think that’s a pretty good cross section of the profession right now, to be honest. I know there is some evidence suggesting that in at least some dogs, immunity against Parvo and Distemper can last for longer than 3 years. However, the 3 year duration is set at the 98% protection level – i.e. 98% of dogs will still be immune after 3 years. Longer than that and it does start to wane.

Rachel: For certain diseases, some owners prefer to have a titre test which gives an indication of the level of immunity present. Unfortunately, titre testing is not available to check immunity for all infections and is not 100% reliable in confirming that your pet is fully protected. I typically only use titre testing in situations where we are considering whether or not to vaccinate pets, for example in dogs who have had a previous severe vaccine reaction. 

David: Personally, given that there’s no convincing evidence of “overvaccination” causing harm in dogs, I think a 3 year interval is quite reasonable. However, my opinion on titre tests is a little more relaxed – for those diseases which it works for (Parvo, Distemper, Hepatitis), I don’t have a problem with it. In fact, I’d rather people titre tested and then boosted if needed rather than just assuming that their dog doesn’t need a booster. Remember, although many dogs retain immune memory for years, that doesn’t mean that your dog has! 

It’s useless for diseases like Lepto, though, where much of the immunity is from cell mediated mechanisms that aren’t assessed by a simple serology test. So I’d still want to see them annually!

Rebecca: It is also important to remember that this annual vaccination consultation offers an important opportunity for your vet to give your pet a health-check and once over. This may allow subtle or early disease to be picked up and will contribute to your pet’s longevity, well-being and overall health.

Are dog vaccines safe – how many side effects or reactions have you seen?

Lawrence: Personally, I have not seen any vaccine side effects in the past 10 years of being a first opinion vet. Vaccination is a large part of my day’s routine and have I probably vaccinated many thousands of dogs.

Rachel: As with any medication, side effects can occur from vaccinations. Thankfully, side effects from vaccination are rare and typically resolve without treatment in a few days. The most common side effects I see are quieter demeanour or mildly reduced appetite, but even this is very rare.  Occasionally some animals develop a small swelling at the vaccine site which resolves over a few weeks without treatment. 

Severe side effects such as severe allergic reaction (including swelling, breathing difficulty, seizures, collapse) are extremely rare. They are reported as occurring in approximately 1 in 10,000 dogs, and I can only think of 1 of 2 patients during my career where I have seen this type of reaction. 

Rebecca: I strongly feel that yes, dog vaccines are safe. Over my 22 years in first-opinion small animal practice, I can genuinely count on one hand the number of side effects or “reactions” I have seen. These have frequently been minor, and consisted of a lump at the vaccination site, or some temporary and mild discomfort, not dissimilar to the arm ache we may feel, having received a vaccination ourselves.

Laura: Vaccinations are very safe; they undergo vigorous safety trials before they become available for use in general practice. In over 11 years of clinical practice I have seen only a handful of very mild side effects such as lethargy, or diarrhoea. In the majority of cases when I ask owners how their dog was after vaccination; they report no change or concern. 

David: I’d agree – a bit “off colour” and maybe a small lump for a few days is common. More serious issues – very rare in the real world.

Rebecca: I do appreciate and acknowledge however, that for some individual patients, probably with a pre-existing genetic predisposition, a vaccination (just as a medicine or infectious disease), might act as a trigger for an inappropriate immune reaction and subsequent immune mediated disease. Fortunately, these incidents are rare.

Lawrence: That being said that doesn’t mean I think vaccines are 100% without possible side effects. I have had colleagues who have reported a case from time to time but none with any long-term side effects and never any deaths. I typically warn owners of possible side effects before vaccinations just in case, but I don’t labour the point as they are generally rare.

Rebecca: In the event of any suspected vaccination reaction, the VMD (Veterinary Medicines Directorate) as an agency of DEFRA, would be informed. Their service helps identify and manage any suspected adverse reactions and acts to maintain high standards of medicine production and provision.

In conclusion, in my opinion, the lifesaving benefits that vaccinations confer, enormously outweighs these small risks of a potential side effect. Furthermore, having vaccines licensed for 3 year administration has helped reduce the amount of vaccine we have to administer in terms of frequency.

There are lots of people who are worried about possible side effects from vaccination. Is there anything you’d like to say to them?

Lawrence: From personal experience and statistically, the important thing to remember is that vaccinations are safe. They are there to provide you protection against diseases that would otherwise make you or your pet very unwell and potentially risk life or long-term disability. There are unfortunately a lot of bad faith actors out there, typically without a science education, that give opinion as though it were fact. 

Rachel: As with all medications, there is a small chance of side effects following vaccination. However, the risk of your pet becoming infected with the diseases we vaccinate against is significantly higher than the risk of them developing side effects. 

Lawrence: It is very easy to scare people with apparent horror stories and unverifiable information. Think to yourself where am I getting this information from? Is it from Facebook, YouTube or something a friend or acquaintance has told you? What are their credentials, what is their general message, are they on a crusade? You don’t go to your toddler for advice on accounting. Speak to your vet. Get the real facts. Stay safe.

Laura: I am confident that vaccination is an important part of keeping the pet population healthy, and I happily vaccinate my own pets. 
David: I’d agree with that. Having seen the impact of diseases like Parvo or Lepto, the suffering they cause is hugely more than that caused by vaccination. All my dogs are vaccinated, and right now, I think that vaccines are the most powerful tool we have for keeping dogs healthy and safe.