Based on my experiences with Moose and my lay review of the guidelines, select literature and some helpful websites by others who have spent a lot more time than me researching vaccines, I’ve developed my own version of vaccine “Cliff’s Notes” for pet parents. I fully expect this will change over time as I learn more, new research is published and I receive helpful suggestions from readers. No doubt I’ve missed some important points. I welcome any feedback and suggestions from readers, vets and fellow pet health advocates.
Begin with the Guidelines
Start with reading the guidelines. Both the AAHA and the WSAVA produced very straightforward guidelines on vaccines. Read them, print them and take them with you to your pet’s vet appointment. Just taking the guidelines with you will change the focus of your conversation with your vet. Rather than the discussion being about your opinion based on what you’ve googled versus the vet’s opinion based on their education and experience, you can talk about the vet’s recommendation vis-a-vis the published guidelines developed by their peers. If the vet disagrees with the guidelines, ask them why they disagree and what evidence they are using to support their position. If your vet gets defensive when you ask them to explain their point of view or can’t offer you a good explanation for their position (and ‘this is the way I’ve always done it’ does not constitute a good explanation!!), find another vet.
Request a ‘titer’ test for retained immunity
Test before you vaccinate, especially for adult pets, pets who have had reactions to vaccines in the past or have other health conditions. Recent research shows that many dogs (and cats) retain immunity to the disease-causing pathogens for many years following their vaccinations. If your dog or cat is still immune, there’s no benefit to continuing to vaccinate and it could be harmful. Blood tests for retained immunity, often called titer tests, aren’t expensive, and many offices have the ability to test while you wait. Think of your pet’s vaccines as being more like the childhood vaccines we all got when we were kids, rather than the flu shot that we need to get every year. It’s not a perfect analogy, but it helps reframe the way we think about the way to protect our pet.
Request monovalent vaccines
If you have a small dog or a toy breed, be conservative. Request monovalent (a single viral or bacterial antigen) vaccines, rather than multivalent (more than one bacterial or viral antigen combined in one shot) formulations. The more strains of virus or bacteria that your pet receives at one time, the greater the level of challenges to your pet’s immune system. For small dogs, some evidence shows this can overwhelm their immune system, causing severe side effects and in some cases possible death.
Call ahead to your vet before your appointment and make sure they have the monovalent vaccines in stock. Multivalent vaccines are the most common formulations that vets keep in stock, so they may need to order them for you or in some cases, you may need to order them yourself and take them to the vet.
Do not vaccinate a sick pet
If your pet is ill or seems unwell in any way, do not have them vaccinated, regardless of their size or breed. If the immune system is already engaged with fighting off one issue, it is not helpful to add another stressor to your dog or cat’s immune system. Vaccination of pets who aren’t well is cited as a cause of severe side effects. It may be inconvenient to make another trip to your vet, but it’s best for your pet to wait until they are back to normal.
Know the type of vaccine formulation your vet uses
Before the vaccine, ask your vet for the specific type of vaccine formulation they are using. Some vaccines include viral or bacterial organisms that have been killed, while others use formulations that use live viral or bacterial organisms that have been altered to keep them from being able to cause disease. While most people initially balk at the notion of injecting their pets with live virus or bacteria, the research actually shows that the live attenuated vaccines have fewer side effects and provide longer protection against their target disease. In addition, some studies have shown a connection between the killed vaccines and auto-immune diseases that develop later in the pet’s life. While the reason for the link between killed vaccines and autoimmune disease is not fully understood, some researchers have speculated the connection is caused by the preservatives and agents that are used in the “killed” vaccine formulations.
Know the core vaccines from the non-core vaccines
The leaders within the veterinary world no longer believe in a “one size fits all” approach to vaccines. Both the AAHA and the WSAVA have provided guidance to vets and pet parents about which vaccines are incredibly important (core) and which vaccines may only be important if your pet is at specific risk for exposure to that pathogen (non-core). Both AAHA and WSAVA provide helpful charts. Print the chart and take it to your vet appointment to discuss what your pet needs, based on their level of risk. Moose and Buckley are urban puppies, and I tend to avoid dog parks, both due to my dogs’ small size and the potential risk of exposure to non-vaccinated dogs. So, I’ve opted to only give them “core” vaccines. If I had a large dog who was running in the fields and swimming in ponds and streams, I would probably add some of the non-core vaccines, such as leptospirosis. Know the risks for your pet, and work with your vet to determine what’s the best option for each individual pet.