Vaccines are one of the greatest medical discoveries – they fundamentally changed modern medicine. Starting with the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century, more than 20 vaccines have been developed for human health and more than 16 for companion animal health.
A vaccine is a preparation that helps the body’s immune system get ready to fight disease-causing organisms. If the immune system has “seen” an unfamiliar microbe (bacteria or virus) as part of a vaccine, it’s primed to produce antibodies if it “sees” (i.e. is exposed to) the same microbe again. Antibodies are what help the body fight infection and protect it from getting the same illness again. Vaccinations are intended to reduce the severity of the illness, and/or prevent the disease entirely, by creating immunity – and thus are also called immunizations.
Over the past 60 years, vaccines have improved the lives of dogs and cats around the world and played an important role in public safety. While veterinary vaccination programs have not (yet) eliminated diseases, vaccines for rabies, distemper, parvovirus, feline leukemia and panleukopenia have greatly reduced the incidence of disease, improving animal welfare and reducing death.
The greatest achievement with the vaccination of companion animals is the reduction of canine distemper – a contagious, serious, and often fatal disease of dogs – in areas where vaccines are used. Another great achievement is the elimination of dog-mediated rabies (rabies in people caused by dogs) in Canada, the United States, western Europe, Japan, and 28 of the 35 Latin American countries.
Rabies, however, is still widespread in more than 150 countries around the world. Even though it’s preventable, it kills about 59,000 people each year. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths are caused by dog bites and about 40% of the victims are children younger than 15 years of age living in Asia and Africa. United Against Rabies, a four-way partnership between the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, has set a goal to eliminate dog-mediated rabies by the year 2030.
The vaccines that are recommended for dogs and cats vary according to where they live and their lifestyle. Some vaccines are “core,” recommended for all dogs or cats, while others are recommended only in special circumstances.
Core vaccines for dogs:
- Canine distemper virus
- Canine adenovirus-2 (canine hepatitis)
- Canine parvovirus
- Rabies virus
Non-core vaccines for dogs in special circumstances:
- Bordetella bronchiseptica + canine parainfluenza virus (kennel cough)
- Borrelia burgdorferi or Lyme disease
- Canine influenza (H3N8 and H3N2)
Core vaccines for cats:
- Feline panleukopenia virus (FPL) (also known as feline infectious enteritis or feline distemper)
- Feline viral rhinotracheitis (also known as herpes virus-1 or FHV-1)
- Feline calicivirus
- Rabies virus
Non-core vaccines for cats in special circumstances:
- Chlamydophila felis
- Feline leukemia virus (FeLV)
- Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) caused by FIP virus or feline coronavirus
- Bordetella bronchiseptica
- Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
Immunization is such an important part of preventive health care for pets, and, as can be appreciated from the statistics on rabies, has obvious implications for human health. While some pet owners may be hesitant to vaccinate out of concerns about vaccine reactions or side-effects, the risks are very low (0.02% to 0.5%) and far outweigh the risks associated with acquiring one of these preventable, and often times deadly, diseases.
With research advancements, and new technologies, the vaccination guidelines have been revised. Historically, many vaccines were administered every year, but with what we now know about vaccine immunity (i.e. protection), the intervals between vaccinations are being extended. As more studies emerge on the immunity created by vaccines, and vaccines improve, the vaccination guidelines will continue to be revised accordingly. Your veterinarian will keep you up to date on the current standards.
Speak with your veterinarian about which vaccines your pet should receive and what schedule you should follow. This month check to make sure that your pet is up to date with all his or her vaccines!