Vaccinations in dogs

Elizabeth Adkins, DVM, MS, DACVO
NSCA Health Committee Chair

I was asked to write a discussion on vaccinations in dogs and how often they should be vaccinated.  I want to start by saying that this subject is very controversial among both breeders and veterinarians.  It is important to bear in mind that the goal of vaccination is to reduce the severity of the disease not necessarily to totally prevent the disease.  Many vaccines are not 100% effective.  Ideally a vaccine program would be tailored for the individual patient and would address the individual patient’s risk of exposure to these infectious diseases.  A number of factors need to be considered such as does the dog have a higher risk of contracting one of these diseases because of genetic factors, environmental factors and age or does the dog have a higher risk of contracting one of these diseases because of its lifestyle (stress factors include showing, traveling, breeding, whelping and nursing).  There are aspects of an individual dog’s immune system and response to vaccines that we cannot always predict.  There is no single vaccine schedule that is ideal for all dogs.  As most of you know the dogma for years was that every dog should be vaccinated for every disease in which a vaccine is available every year.  About ten years ago people began to question this dogma.  Dr. Ron Schultz, a veterinary immunologist at the University of Wisconsin, led a movement among the veterinarians against vaccinating dogs every year.  His major hypothesis is that once vaccinated for a disease the patient’s immune system may remember the pathogen and respond appropriately for the remainder of the patient’s life.  This may be true in dogs that do not have much exposure to infectious diseases such as households with one or two healthy dogs in which the dogs do not travel away from their property.  Dogs with busy show careers or dogs that regularly visit dog parks may have a greater exposure to infectious diseases and a greater risk of contracting these diseases so they may need to be re-vaccinated more frequently to reduce their risk of contracting these diseases.  There are many anecdotal reports of diseases being caused by over-vaccinating dogs; however, the scientific evidence to support this is sparse.  One study looked at whether or not vaccines caused thyroiditis (inflammation of the thyroid gland that could subsequently lead to hypothyroidism or low thyroid function) in beagles.  In this study there was no association between repeated vaccination and thyroiditis.1

One problem in determining how often dogs should be vaccinated is that we do not know how long the immunity after vaccination lasts in every dog.  Some owners will elect to run titers (blood tests) to determine the individual patient’s level of antibodies to a specific disease; however, most people do not do these tests because of expense.  These tests are not available for every disease that we vaccinate for and if the patient’s antibody levels to a specific disease are high that does not necessarily equate to the patient being protected from contracting the disease.  This method should not be used to determine if an immunosuppressed animal or neonate is protected from the disease.  Also the level of antibody that could indicate that the dog is protected from the disease varies depending on the laboratory and method of analysis used. 

Different types of reactions can occur in an individual patient following vaccination.   The most serious reaction is an anaphylactic reaction to the vaccine or the carrier in the vaccine.  Clinical signs of such a reaction in the dog include facial swelling, itching, shock, weakness, difficulty breathing, vomiting and/or diarrhea and death.  These reactions, although uncommon, can occur the first time the dog is vaccinated or any time that the dog is vaccinated.  If you are concerned that your dog is having such a reaction you should seek medical attention for the dog immediately. 

Another type of vaccine reaction may cause autoimmune hemolytic anemia (where the body attacks its own red blood cells).  In one study looking at a connection between vaccines and autoimmune hemolytic anemia, only 26% of the dogs with the autoimmune hemolytic anemia had been vaccinated within the month prior to becoming ill.2  This study indicated that autoimmune hemolytic anemia was actually more likely to occur in dogs that had not recently been vaccinated. 

A syndrome called coonhound paralysis has been reported after vaccination in dogs and cats.  This is an immune-mediated inflammation of the nerves that causes paralysis with recovery over the next 2-4 weeks if the patient receives nutritional support and physical therapy.  A similar disease occurs in dogs that have been bitten by raccoons hence the name coonhound paralysis. 
Systemic signs that may occur after vaccination include fever, anorexia and depression.  Other vaccine reactions include local reactions such as pain, redness, swelling, irritation, change of hair color, loss of hair coat and abscesses can occur at the vaccine site. 

Certain vaccines should be avoided in pregnant animals to avoid risks to the puppies.

Here are some current general guidelines many veterinarians are using for vaccinating low-risk dogs although you should consult your personal veterinarian about the vaccine schedule that is best for your own dogs.

Core vaccines in dogs3

  • Rabies (because of public health risks this vaccine is mandated by most states to be given around 4 months of age, 12 months later then every 3 years)
  • Distemper (puppy series, then 12 months later then every 3 years)
  • Parvovirus (puppy series, then 12 months later then every 3 years)
  • Infectious canine hepatitis (adenovirus) (puppy series, then 12 months later then every 3 years)
  • Non core vaccines in dogs (these are vaccines that may not be routinely recommended in all dogs depending on their risk of exposure to the diseases)
  • Bordetella (one of the causative agents of kennel cough) (puppy series, then 12 months later or at least one week prior to anticipated exposure)
  • Parainfluenza (puppy series, then 12 months later then every 3 years)
  • Lyme disease (puppy series, then annually)
  • Coronavirus (puppy series, then annually)
  • Leptosporosis (puppy series, then annually, associated with anaphylactic reactions in some dogs)
  • Giardia (puppy series, then annually)
  • Babesia (available in Europe, this vaccine does not prevent babesiosis but may prevent many of its pathologic consequences)
  • Leishmania (currently experimental)


  1. Scott-Moncrieff JC, et al.  Lack of association between repeated vaccination and thyroiditis in laboratory Beagles. J Vet Intern Med, 2006, 20 (4): 818-21.
  2. Duval, D., Giger, U.  Vaccine-associated immune-mediated hemolytic anemia in the dog.  J Vet Intern Med, 1996, 10 (5): 290-5.
  3. Green, CE, et al.  Appendix 1, Recommendations for Core and Noncore Vaccinations of Dogs.  In, Infectious diseases of the Dog and Cat, third ed., Saunders, 2006, pp. 1121-1123

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