Vaccinating your pet

ILLINOIS—Even though they may be taken for granted, pet vaccinations are vital for your pet’s health. Properly vaccinating your pet is an important part of pet care because vaccines can potentially help protect your pet against some serious health conditions and diseases.

“Vaccines are a suspension of altered microorganisms which will prevent, lessen, or treat disease without causing the disease,” said Dr. Mark Stickney, clinical associate professor at the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

Vaccines are considered the cornerstone of preventive medicine. Knowing the different types of vaccinations and how they work can help pet owners provide the best care for their animals.

“There are live, killed, modified live and recombinant vaccinations,” Stickney said. “By exposing the immune system to bacteria or viruses that are genetically similar to the ones that will cause disease, the immune system will develop antibodies that protect the body when it encounters the actual disease-causing organism.”

Stickney said some pet vaccines can be purchased over-the-counter and given by non-veterinarians. However, there may be quality control issues with vaccines if you are not familiar with the correct way to store and use them.

“By law, certain vaccines, like the rabies vaccine, can only be given by your veterinarian,” Stickney said. “Your veterinarian is also the best person to determine the vaccines your pet needs and how frequently they should be administered.”

According to Stickney, all puppies and kittens should receive the rabies vaccine at three months of age, and again at one year of age. Vaccination schedules vary depending on the area of the country you are in and the prevalence of different diseases in that area.

Puppies should be vaccinated for distemper virus, adenovirus, parvovirus and parainfluenza, while kittens should be vaccinated for viral rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia. Other vaccinations may also be recommended depending on the lifestyle of your pet.

“Booster shots are necessary in puppies and kittens to overcome ‘maternal immunity,’ where the antibodies that the puppies and kittens acquired from their mother provide some protection but eventually break down,” Stickney said. “Vaccines are ineffective in the face of maternal immunity; therefore the puppy and kitten vaccine series is necessary to protect the pet during the time when the maternal immunity disappears. Booster shots remind the immune system of diseases it is supposed to protect against.”

The frequency at which adult animals should receive booster vaccines has been a topic of debate among veterinarians for years. Increasingly, there is evidence that most vaccines do not need to be boosted every year, and that the risk of an animal catching certain diseases decreases with age. Your veterinarian will be able to tailor a vaccine protocol to the specific lifestyle of your pet.

“No vaccine is 100 percent effective,” Stickney said. “It is possible to overwhelm any vaccine and immune system with exposure to enough disease-causing organisms.”

Additionally, adverse reactions can occur from vaccinations. These reactions are most likely to occur the second time an animal receives a vaccine. They usually occur within a few minutes to six hours of vaccination.

“There are two types of reactions commonly seen: anaphylactic and delayed hypersensitivity,” Stickney said. “Delayed hypersensitivity reactions are more common and less serious. The pet becomes itchy and the face and ears swell. These reactions can usually be treated with antihistamines. Anaphylactic reactions are less common, and are serious and life-threatening. The animal collapses and goes into shock. Epinephrine and intravenous fluids are necessary to treat the animal.”

If your pet has had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, it is important to let your veterinarian know. Even pets that are allergic to a specific vaccine typically have no problems if they are treated with antihistamines before vaccinations.

Remember, vaccines are health products that signal protective immune responses in your pet. Your veterinarian can best guide you in the use and scheduling of vaccinations for your pet.