Q: How important is it for my dog to get the Bordetella and influenza vaccines? She only comes in contact with other dogs at the dog park and at the groomers. I am concerned about all these vaccines.
A: There are lots of thoughts out there about vaccines hurting and helping pets. Unfortunately, some of these thoughts are not always based on science but on internet lore.
The truth about pet vaccines is that they have always been and will continue to be the safest and most cost effective means of infectious disease prevention. By that, I mean disease prevention in pets and their owners, in some cases. Here is how we view vaccines in veterinary medicine.
In 2017, the American Animal Hospital Association published their Canine Vaccination Guidelines, and most, if not all, veterinarians use these guidelines to set up their own protocols for vaccinating dogs and puppies. There is also a large section of the guidelines that addresses frequency of vaccinations and how they should be given, but that section is for another question. For our purposes, the guidelines define vaccines as either core or non-core vaccines. This is the part I think will interest you.
A core vaccine is considered to be necessary for the maintenance of a dog’s health. There are two core vaccines in veterinary medicine. The first one is the puppy vaccine. It prevents parvo virus, distemper and hepatitis. These viruses can cause puppies to die in certain cases that are entirely preventable with the vaccine. Several vaccines are needed to ensure protection as puppies grow.
The second core vaccine is, of course, the rabies vaccine. Rabies is a virus that is found in nature in mammals and is a fatal disease to every living creature exposed to it.
Rabies vaccines are required by law in all states with some areas (Hawaii) being classified as rabies-free — meaning there are no known cases and there are strict rules and laws to keep rabies-positive animals and suspected animals from entering the state. The guidelines discuss the frequency of administering these vaccines, and each state has developed protocols based on their own risk level.
Non-core vaccines are not considered necessary but may be given when exposure to a disease is expected or likely. Non-core vaccines include Bordetella, or kennel cough; Lyme; lepto; flu; and giardia. There is even a rattlesnake vaccine that can be given in certain areas. I’m glad that is not in West Virginia.
The diseases that non-core vaccines help to prevent will not cause dogs to die, like the core diseases, but they can cause dogs to be incredibly sick and need to visit a veterinarian for treatment. What we try to do is to individualize vaccine requirements based on a pet’s risk factors, life stage and lifestyle. So not all dogs need all vaccines all the time.
For the Bordetella and flu vaccines in particular, there are a certain group of dogs that are at risk. Those dogs that go to places where other dogs gather, are housed closely, or have close contact are at risk for developing the diseases. That would include at boarding and grooming kennels, dog shows, dog parks and shelters. Dogs who often visit veterinary hospitals are at risk as well due to the very nature of sick pets being at a hospital.
Both of these vaccines are safe to give and do not cause disease. Bordetella is an oral vaccine and flu is injectable, with only minimal discomfort at the injection site. Now, you do not have to vaccinate your pet against these diseases, and she may never get sick. But if she does come down with these annoying respiratory diseases, it is going to take some time and effort to get her through her illness, which could have been preventable.
The other non-core vaccines would be indicated for dogs in a more rural environment — country dogs versus city dogs. Lepto is a disease transmitted by wildlife, such as deer and small forest mammals that causes kidney and liver disease. Lyme, of course, is from ticks and can cause chronic pain and kidney disease. Ticks are found mostly in a woodland environment and on all wildlife.
Now, my job is done. I can’t tell you that you have to vaccinate your pet really with any vaccine except for the rabies vaccine. Rabies is non-negotiable. But I can tell you all the facts as we know them about vaccines and their benefits and which pet is at risk and which pet is not. It’s up to you to decide the rest.
Like I tell my teenagers, decide for yourself and if it is a good decision, I’ll be your biggest fan; if it turns out to be a bad decision, I’ll still be your fan, but only after a long lecture on decision-making. Good luck.