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Which Vaccines Does Your Pet Need?

Updated on April 8, 2013

Most of us are pretty well versed when it comes to vaccinations for humans. We take our children to the doctor for their regular shots and keep up-to-date ourselves. But what about vaccinations for our pets? Many owners aren’t as well educated about the vaccinations offered for their pets, and some may wonder how many of the vaccinations recommended by their vet—or that are simply offered—are really necessary. So, here is a run-down of a few of the vaccinations your vet is likely to suggest, and why your pet does (or may not) need them:

*Note: This article will focus on vaccines for dogs and cats.

1. Rabies. Most owners know that this vaccination is essential. For one thing, it’s a legal issue. A rabies vaccination is generally required in the U.S. and pets must be registered with their city and wear a rabies tag to prove their vaccination is up-to-date. Some owners—especially those of indoor cats—assume it’s fine to leave this alone since their animals don’t come into contact with other animals. But there are a few reasons why you shouldn’t skimp on the rabies vaccination. For one thing—as already stated—it’s a legal issue. If your unvaccinated pet bites someone (however unlikely this may be), whoever they bite will have to receive a series of Rabies shots and your pet may need to be quarantined for a period of time, as well. In addition, you’re likely to be landed with a fine. And, if whoever your pet bites is a bit vindictive, there could be more legal issues ahead, too.

Furthermore, there’s risk involved. It’s easy to assume your pet is safe from contracting Rabies because they spend most of their time at home with you, but there is no guarantee this is true. Rabies never disappears and tends to flare up unexpectedly in communities. It’s possible your pet could be bitten by a stray animal or even a bat that gets into your house. And if your animal is bitten, there’s little you can do if they aren’t vaccinated. There is no way to test for Rabies in a live animal. The best choice, in the end, is to keep your pet—and yourself—safe by having them vaccinated.

2. Canine Distemper. Distemper, like Rabies, is a relatively deadly disease and worth vaccinating against. Most veterinarians agree that prevention is preferable to treatment, as Distemper is difficult to treat and survival rates are not very high. Dogs who do survive Distemper often have lasting symptoms that continue throughout their lifespan even after the infection has lifted. Because of this, it is better that your dog avoid the risk of contracting Distemper in the first place, rather than attempt to fight it.

Canine Distemper vaccines are usually combined with a vaccination for Parvovirus, another highly contagious canine disease that can also be fatal, especially if the diagnosis is late. Again, while it’s possible your animal may never be exposed, it usually isn’t worth the risk. Both diseases spread rather easily and remain major dangers for dogs—especially puppies—across the U.S.

3. Feline panleukopenia virus, a.k.a. Feline Distemper, is a viral infection that affects both feral and domesticated cats. It is highly contagious and often fatal, so this is another vaccine that is strongly recommended by most veterinarians. Like Canine Distemper, this vaccine is usually offered as a combination vaccine, in this case Feline Upper Respiratory Disease. Most cats will be exposed to an upper respiratory virus at some point in their lives, and the infections can sometimes be quite severe. Current vaccinations are not able to prevent infection in all cases, but they do severely lessen the symptoms, which makes recovery easier.

4. Feline Leukemia (FeLV). Many owners are confused when they hear the word “leukemia” along with the word “vaccination.” But, unlike most cancers, feline leukemia is actually a retrovirus that is spread through saliva and nasal secretions, urine, feces, and milk from infected, nursing cats. It can lead to cancer, blood disorders, and immune deficiencies that make cats more prone to infections. Once infected, a cat will not recover from FeLV, though with good care they may continue to live a relatively healthy life for a number of years before the disease presents life-threatening symptoms.

This vaccination isn’t necessary for all cats. Most veterinarians recommend it for outdoor cats or indoor cats that live with outdoor cats, since they are more likely to come into contact with strange cats that might be carriers. Generally, it is not necessary to vaccinate a cat that lives strictly indoors. However, if your cat is an indoor cat but was recently adopted from a shelter, it may be a good idea to get him tested just in case he contracted FeLV before he entered the shelter.

5. Bordatella, also known as “kennel cough” or “tracheobronchitis,” is a respiratory disease that is highly contagious among dogs. Symptoms include a dry and/or honking cough, nasal discharge, retching, and in more severe cases fever, lethargy, and pneumonia. Like Feline Leukemia, this vaccination isn’t recommended for all dogs. Your pet is at higher risk if it spends time in close quarters with a number of strange dogs, for instance in a boarding kennel, at doggy day care, or at a dog park. Talk to your vet about your pet’s possible risk of exposure and together you can decide whether a vaccination is necessary. The vaccination is offered in two forms. Most often it’s given as an injection, but if your dog is about to go to a boarding kennel in a few days’ time, most vets recommend the more efficient intranasal form of the vaccine.

These are the most common of the vaccines offered by veterinarians. If there are other vaccinations you’re interested in or that your vet has suggested, it’s best to discuss them with your vet to decide whether or not they’re necessary for your cat or dog. They are ultimately the best resource when it comes to your pet’s health, and you should always consult your vet about any questions or concerns—even about the vaccinations listed above. I may be knowledgeable, but your vet knows more than I do!


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    • Saffron23 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New Mexico

      You make a good point that not vaccinating against a disease can also raise the risk of it spreading in a certain area. And vaccinations are even more important among pets that spend a lot of time in contact with other animals, like dogs who travel to competitions. Anyone who is involved in dog showing or competing of any kind should definitely take extra care with their pet's health, since they are exposed to so many other dogs. It's a lot like sending your child off to school. In close quarters among so many other kids, the risk of them catching something rises quite a bit.

      Thanks for the response!

    • agilitymach profile image

      Kristin Kaldahl 

      5 years ago

      I split the vaccines on my dogs. I also quit vaccinating after they get older with the exception of bordatella. Many - if not most - of my agility friends do titers instead of vaccinations and only vaccinate if the titers fall below level. I probably should start doing that too. :) My dogs also get the three year rabies.

      Since my dogs travel extensively to dog agility trials and are exposed to hundreds of dogs, I am especially careful about the need for my dogs to be covered by vaccinations. I know this article is for the general public who may not realize the extreme importance of vaccines in keeping dogs safe from horrible diseases like Parvo. Keeping a dog's titer levels up to protect them from these killer diseases is vital.

      My vet has said that he never used to see distemper cases but as people quit vaccinating, distemper is now a problem again. :(

    • Saffron23 profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New Mexico

      Thanks for the comment! This post was mainly meant to focus on why it's important for pets to be vaccinated against certain diseases, but it is fair to mention the availability of 3-year Rabies and Distemper vaccines. It's also true that pets are more prone to reactions to vaccines when receiving polyvalent vaccines or multiple vaccinations at once. One way to counteract this--and something that many vets recommend--is to split vaccines in order to cut down on the risk of a reaction. In other words, you can have your pet vaccinated for Rabies one day, then for Distemper one or two weeks later. Certainly, there are drawbacks to all forms of medical treatments, but it's still important for animals to be up-to-date on certain vaccines.

    • tsadjatko profile image

      5 years ago from now on

      One thing that deserves mention is that veterinarians over vaccinate pets. To put this in perspective, note that the recommendation to go to a 3-year vaccine protocol came out of Colorado State University more than 15 years ago, yet there are still many veterinarians administering annual vaccines. This reluctance to change is especially true of the older generation veterinarians who lived through a time when the mortality rate from rabies, distemper, etc., was very high. Vaccines came along and saved lives - no question - but it is time to start paying more attention to the current DOI studies - some of which have been available for many years. The current suggestions/package labels do not reflect the fact that challenge studies have shown a very long duration of immunity (DOI) - lifelong, for some diseases - from just a single, properly-timed, vaccine. In a vaccine-related study of almost 32,000 cats, 73 developed inflammatory reactions after being vaccinated, and two developed vaccine site-associated sarcomas.

      Study results also showed that:

      * Polyvalent vaccines (vaccines for multiple pathogens contained in a single immunization) caused more reactions that monovalent vaccines (single-pathogen vaccines).

      * Adjuvanted vaccines (vaccines with additives to boost immune response) cause more reactions than vaccines without adjuvants.

      Bottom line is instead of vaccinating boosters yearly once every three years is plenty, and in many cases even that is too often.


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