Vaccines for Dogs: A 100-Year History of Success

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Most dog owners know the drill. You bring home your sweet little puppy or a shelter dog and head to your vet for its first vet check. Part of that includes getting one or more vaccines to help prevent serious diseases and even death. However, the matter of vaccinating your pet is more controversial and complicated than it would seem at first glance.

The first vaccine for dogs was the rabies vaccine, first tested on dogs before it was tried on humans in 1885. But it took until the 1920s before rabies vaccines, now required by law in most localities, became available to prevent the disease in dogs.

In 1923, a combination vaccine, now called the distemper vaccine, was introduced to protect against the common canine diseases of distemper, parvovirus and hepatitis. These are called core, or essential, vaccines, the standard vaccines that most veterinarians want dogs to receive. Newer vaccines, called non-core vaccines, can be recommended depending on geographic location and a dog’s lifestyle.

While most vets urge dog parents to vaccinate their dogs, there is some opposition from people resisting canine and human vaccinations and who want to choose other ways to prevent and treat disease. Those advocating the natural approach point out that among certain breeds, such as Maltese, Boston terriers, pugs, chihuahuas, miniature pinschers and dachshunds, there’s an increased rate of vaccine-associated adverse events, sometimes called vaccine allergies. However, these reactions happen with only about 1 percent of vaccinated dogs. Despite the fact that dogs have been getting safely vaccinated for 100 years, this movement is growing. In 2017, a bill was filed in the Connecticut legislature that would have allowed veterinarians to dilute the rabies vaccine dose for smaller dogs even though vaccine efficacy is not determined by a dog’s body weight.

So, what happens if your dog gets one of the diseases that the essential core vaccines can help prevent?

Distemper is spread by contact with bodily fluid droplets. It has a mortality rate of 50 percent, 80 percent in puppies. If a dog survives, it can cause long-lasting seizures and chronic severe pneumonia. First symptoms are watery eyes, coughing, loss of appetite and lethargy.

Dogs with parvovirus exhibit gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea and vomiting. It can, in some cases, suppress the immune system and can be fatal. It is spread when a dog swallows even a tiny amount of feces. A dog can become sick by just licking its feet after walking on contaminated sidewalks.

Like hepatitis in humans, infectious canine hepatitis, or ICH, targets a dog’s liver and can also affect a dog’s lungs, kidneys, spleen and the lining of blood vessels. Symptoms can range from a mild fever to death. It is usually spread when a dog consumes bodily discharges from other dogs. Some dogs will need care for kidney and eye problems for the rest of their lives.
Non-core vaccines are sometimes recommended for dogs depending on their chance of exposure. There are a number of these vaccine, so talk to your veterinarian to find out what’s right for your dog.

Infectious tracheobronchitis, often referred to as kennel cough, can be caused by one or more infectious agents and can range from a mild cold-like disease to serious pneumonia. Symptoms include a dry hacking cough. Kennel cough can be treated with rest and, in some cases, antibiotics. Most kennels require this vaccine for boarding dogs.

Lyme disease, spread by the deer tick, is very common is some parts of the United States, particularly the Northeast, the Upper Midwest and the Pacific coast. Lyme disease is treatable, but if untreated it can lead to serious heart and brain conditions. No matter your geographic location, if your dog has been walking in the woods or grassy areas, check for ticks, including inside the ears, and remove the tick as soon as possible. Topical flea and tick preparations can also help protect your dog.

Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection more common in dogs that live in humid areas with standing water, but in recent years it’s been seen increasingly in urban areas. It is often spread by rodents, including city rats. This can be a serious but treatable illness that can ultimately affect a dog’s kidneys, liver, brain, lungs and heart. Look for symptoms such as lethargy and lack of appetite. It can spread to humans.
Other non-core vaccines your vet might recommend are those for canine influenza, a respiratory illness found all over the country, and canine coronavirus, not related to human COVID. Corona infects a dog’s intestinal tract and is found mostly in the American South.

So, why vaccinate your fuzzy best friend? Because you love your pup and want to keep it healthy and happy. Talk to your vet and decide what’s best for your dog.

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