Puppy and Kitten Vaccines The Risk vs Reality

Monday, 24 April 2017  |  Kate

Puppy and Kitten Vaccines – The Risk vs Reality

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate is just as much an emotive issue for pet owners as it is among parents. So I’ll get right off the fence with this one – I think vaccines are the 20th century’s gift to the world. However, when it comes to our dogs and cats in the UK we over-vaccinate our pets like no one else.

There is not such thing as a sure thing.

It seems to me that these days we want a cast-iron, 100% guarantee that something will work all the time, every time and won’t ever fail. Sadly there is no such thing as a 0% failure rate. Life doesn’t come with any guarantees. We have to take a risk, based on our best guess and using the information we have to hand. And, in the case of vaccines, the risk of not vaccinating far outweighs the risk of any side effect we, or our pets, may suffer from having them, so we should roll up our sleeves, or stick our tongues out and give thanks that we have access to them at all.

That said there’s no need to overdo it. I personally will vaccinate my pets against their core diseases. I will vaccinate myself against diseases when I am travelling but I won’t be vaccinating any of us on a regular basis just for the hell of it.

How vaccines work

A live vaccine contains a minute amount of an altered form of a disease that is injected into a puppy at 8 weeks, 10 weeks and at just over 1year old. This triggers your dog’s immune response as if the body has been infected with the actual disease. Their body attacks it, develops antibodies to fight it, then stores the memory of it for future use. If they ever meet the real McCoy, Parvovirus for instance, their immune system recognises it and swiftly produces the antibodies to see it off. This is far safer than going through the whole horrible process of fighting the full-blown disease, which could leave to life changing complications, or be fatal.

Core vaccines all dogs in the UK need

Dogs need the following core vaccines:
  • Canine distemper virus
  • Canine adenovirus
  • Canine parvovirus type 2
  • Canine leptospirosis

Puppies and maternal immunity

What mum takes away with one hand (worms!) she gives with another, the gift of temporary immunity. Puppies, like human babies, are born with a maternal immunity known as a Maternally Derived Antibodies (MDA), also known as passive immunity. Maternal antibodies interfere with vaccination efficacy, which is why you don’t start a vaccination programme until puppies are 8 weeks old. They then receive a second vaccination 2 weeks later. These vaccinations essentially act as a jump start to try and get your puppy’s body to develop an immune response of his own.

It’s then recommended that dogs receive a booster at 12 months. This is to help ensure immunity in dogs who didn’t respond so well to the first set of vaccines because their maternal immunity hadn’t worn off sufficiently.

NB. Vaccinating in older and immune-compromised dogs and pregnant bitches should always be done under the supervision of your vet. Nikita, for instance, won’t be having any more vaccinations, at the recommendation of the vets who rescued her.

IMPORTANT this does not mean that you are overloading your dogs with too many vaccines. Vets, scientists and pharmaceutical companies know this and produce vaccines accordingly. It’s the same for humans.

How long does a vaccine protect your dog?
The lifetime of a vaccine, the time for which it gives you all, or partial, protection from a disease, is known as Duration of Immunity (DOI). For distemper, for instance, DOI is nine years or longer (whereas your DOI after a natural infection is lifelong, as long as it hasn’t killed you in the process – pox parties my eye!).

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) States: “Core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 12 month booster injection following the puppy/kitten series, because the duration of immunity (DOI) is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet.”
These guidelines should be followed by all vets and I have no idea why they aren’t. Pet owners are going to have to lead the charge with this one. Ask your vet why they still insist on annual boosters when the WSAVA, a respected global organisation of veterinary professsionals, says our pets don’t need them.

What would one of these diseases do to my dog?
It depends on the disease, of course, but consider this before you dismiss vaccination out of hand: how ill your dog becomes and its survival depends on his general health. Dogs with a compromised immune system, who can’t be vaccinated, will be at high risk of becoming infected and won’t be able to fend off disease so easily. A high take-up of vaccinations among dog owners means that a herd immunity is created, protecting those that cannot be immunised. But, if you really need to know...

Canine distemper – a horrible way to go

This is the number one cause of death from infectious disease among dogs, in the world. It’s a bit like the measles virus in humans and is ‘shed’ from infected animals through all their secretions, including tears. It attacks the cells that line the surfaces of the dog’s body, including the brain. The symptoms start off with fever move on to listlessness, discharge from eyes and nose and loss of appetite. Vomiting and diarrhoea then lead to dehydration. After a while the discharge from the nose becomes thick and sticky. Your dog starts to cough and pus blisters appear on her abdomen.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the distemper virus then gets stuck into the brain, causing encephalitis (inflammation of the lining of the brain). Your dog starts to slobber, shakes her head repeatedly and starts chewing at nothing (remember the poor, mad cows?) On it goes, ending with seizures, and possibly death.
Now, when was the last time you saw a dog doing that? I’m guessing if you don’t work in the pet primary healthcare industry probably never. And why would you want to? It’s a horrible way to go and it takes weeks. You haven’t seen it because we vaccinate against it.

Annual boosters? I don’t think so

This is where I hop over to the other side of the fence. For years it’s been standard practice for all dogs and cats to be revaccinated with annual booster jabs. The WSAVA’s updated vaccination guidelines in 2015 advise against this practice. In summary, it states that:
  • Vaccines should not be given needlessly.
  • Core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 12 month booster injection following the puppy/kitten series, because the duration of immunity (DOI) is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet.
  • We should only vaccinate with core vaccines
  • Then vaccinate less frequently
A core vaccine is defined as a vaccine that all dogs, regardless of geographical location, should receive. Non-core vaccines are defined as being required only by those animals whose geography, environment or lifestyle puts them at risk of contracting a specific infection, e.g. rabies.

However, my first question would be this: if the DOI is nine years for the core diseases then why is it recommended that we revaccinate our dogs every three?
I don’t think it’s the vets’ fault. Look at their dilemma. The manufacturer will advise how often their vaccines should be administered so your dog remains protected. If they stipulate every three years then what’s a vet to do?

Even if he or she knows your dog and the local area well, the manufacturer has stated a time period in which they guarantee protection. Would you take the risk of extending that time period with someone else’s pet? I wouldn’t. If the vet doesn’t vaccinate your dog every three years and your dog goes on to develop one of these diseases, who’re you going to sue? And what if your doggy day care or kennels won’t accept your dog unless he’s fully vaccinated? There go your two weeks in Ibiza.

Also, the veterinary world is changing. Practices are becoming far more business savvy, and many are now owned by very big companies, who in turn are owned by very hungry shareholders. And they want their slice of the parvo pie at the end of the year. So sales targets (yes, damned sales targets) are becoming more of an issue now. If you can get a dog vaccinated every three years instead of every nine and you get 100 dogs a week sloping into your surgery, what choice does a vet have?

Again from the WSAVA guidelines “The WSAVA strongly supports the concept of the ‘annual health check’. This removes the emphasis from, and client expectation of, annual revaccination. The annual health check may still encompass administration of selected non-core vaccines which should be administered annually, as the DOI for these products is generally one year or less.” If your insurance company or vet insists you have annual boosters get a new vet and change your insurance provider.

Alternatives to vaccination

The British Association of Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeons (BAHVS) qualified in both conventional veterinary medicine and homeopathy state: ‘Where there is no medical contra-indication, immunisation should be carried out in the normal way using the conventional tested and approved vaccines.’

There is no clinically proven alternative to a primary course of vaccinations – there just isn’t. After the initial vaccinations and first booster it’s possible to test for antibodies (a titer test) to establish if further vaccination is needed. If not, then great; carry on as normal. But don’t not vaccinate in the first place.

Homeopathic vaccines – nosodes – are supposed to work in the same way that a vaccine does. Except that a vaccine works by taking some of the live virus, distemper, for instance, chopping its arms and legs off, then introducing it to the body where the body’s own immune system can produce antibodies to fight it off; while a nosode works by taking a tiny amount of a disease from diseased tissue – secretions, excretions and discharges – diluting it down to something so small as to often be undetectable, and then administering it to the patient’s body, where it supposedly triggers an immune response to produce antibodies and fight the infection. Problem is, this is not a regulated industry so you have no way of knowing if the material was safe, if it was infected with any other diseased material and what effect it will have on the body once introduced.

The response I hear time and again is ‘my dog got better with homeopathy, and he can’t tell whether or not it’s a placebo he’s taking or not.’ I say, he got better on his own, and because of all the extra care taken with him, from you and your vet (homeopathic or not). Vaccines have almost wiped out some horrific diseases in humans and animals so that we have forgotten how horrible, debilitating and lethal they can be. If homeopathy was so good as a method of immunising us and our pets we would have been doing it for a long time before vaccines came along.

My only advice to you is that if you are considering using nosodes as an alternative to vaccination for your pets, please get their core vaccines done first and then see a homeopathic vet for follow-ups. Don’t buy nosodes off the internet, ask your vet who makes up their preparations, assuming they don’t do it themselves.

So, to vaccinate or not to vaccinate

Whatever you think, whatever your beliefs around your own health, not vaccinating your pet is really no option at all. At the very least your pet needs her first round of vaccines. If money is very tight just get her vaccinations done when she’s a puppy at 16 weeks when it shouldn’t clash with any passive immunity she will have inherited from her mother. And there are schemes out there to help with the cost.

Look on the Dogs Trust, PDSA, Blue Cross and RSPCA websites for details. Also look out for National Vaccination Month. Each year there is a vaccination amnesty where vets across the country offer good discounts on core vaccines. Go to www. nvmonline.co.uk.

If you look at the Veterinary Medicines Directorate’s report on Suspected Adverse Events for 2012 you will see that there were only 259 adverse reactions reported to live vaccines in dogs. Which perhaps sounds like a lot. But when you consider how many dogs receive vaccinations in any one year it’s negligible compared to the horrible suffering and loss of life we would be facing if we didn’t vaccinate.

Let's Stop Over-vaccinating - By Titer testing

Before your dog's three year booster is due you may want to get an antibody test, called a titer test done on her to determine whether or not she needs it. A titer test measures antibody levels in your system. How many you have determines your level of immunity to a disease. Did you ever have a BCG (TB) vaccination at school when you were in your early teens? Do you remember a couple of weeks before all lining up to have a little daisy wheel of something shot into your wrist? That was a titre test. They were measuring to see what levels of immunity you had to TB. If you had good immunity you didn’t need the BCG vaccination.

“The VGG supports the development and use of simple in-practice tests for determination of seroconversion (antibody) following vaccination.” This is a massive position shift for veterinary guidelines and it’s about time. I think titer testing is going to become the norm in the next ten years or so. And if vets can offer it as a service, still get you in for your health check and pay the rent then everyone’s a winner.

Vets are starting to get switched on to offering titer testing – my vet, for instance, charges £70 to do it. Simple titers, for distemper and parvovirus, can be done while you wait, if your vet is set up to do them, otherwise the tests have to go off to the lab to be done. For rabies it’s probably going to get sent off too and will cost more. But if you’re not in a rabies area and you don’t intend to travel to one with your dog it’s not something you need to worry about.

So vaccinate, always. Then titer test every three years, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Extract from My Itchy Dog by Kate Bendix Available here or from Amazon