Most every dog and cat guardian knows about vaccinations, but how much do they know? Why do we vaccinate? Which vaccines are given and why and when? What happens if we don’t vaccinate? These are all good questions and now we’ll try to answer them!

The term “vaccine” is derived from the Latin term for “cow”, because one of the very first vaccines used came not from a laboratory, but from the observation an English doctor, Edward Jenner, made back in the 18th century that milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox, a deadly disease. They would often get a condition called “cowpox”, a mild rash caused by a virus similar, but distinct from smallpox. Jenner used fluid from the blisters of cowpox-infected patients and inoculated patients who then seemed to be protected from infection with smallpox. Jenner called the infectious agent of cowpox Variolae vaccinae, thus “vaccine”.

Okay, so what. This example is an illustration of how vaccines work: they stimulate the immune system to enhance its ability to protect from disease. Most of the vaccines we use are against viral diseases such as rabies, distemper, parvo and feline leukemia, etc., but some (perhaps more properly called bacterins) are aimed at bacterial diseases such as kennel cough (Bordetella) and leptospirosis. Some anti-viral vaccines are very effective and can result in long durations of immunity, often up to three years or longer, however, anti-bacterial vaccines tend to be weaker and need to be boosted more often. For example, the Bordetella vaccine is given once yearly for the average dog, but those that regularly go to doggie day care or are boarded often may need it every 6 months.

There some vaccines that are more important than others. They are aimed at more common diseases (e.g., feline upper respiratory infections) or those that can be fatal (distemper/parvo), or those that are required by law due to the public (human) health aspects (rabies). These are called “core” vaccines and with rare exceptions are the bare minimum. Other, non-core, vaccines are offered, but may be less strongly recommended. An example might be the vaccine (bacterin) against Lyme disease. Here at Beaverton Pet Clinic we recommend for dogs: DHPP (distemper/hepatitis/parainfluenza/parvovirus), rabies, leptospirosis and bordetella, and for cats: FVRCP (feline viral rhinotracheitis-a herpesvirus/calicivirus/panleukopenia-“kitty parvo”), feline leukemia, and rabies.

So, what happens if we don’t vaccinate? When we consider that rabies in the domestic pet population is extremely rare in the U.S., we must point the success of immunization programs that are implemented by force of law. But, we can also point to other examples where vaccines have done much to protect human and animal health. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox to be eradicated from the human population. This was possible because of global use of vaccination. So, if we fail to vaccinate, we open the door for further spread of some diseases with potentially catastrophic results, not just for our pets but our human loved ones as well. (Reports that vaccine cause autism in children have been completely discredited and the physician who first reported this has lost his license to practice.)

In short, vaccines are the best, most cost-effective health insurance you can buy for your pets. Of course, it goes without saying that having your pet examined by a veterinarian on a regular basis (at least twice a year, especially for older pets) is another key piece of keeping your pets happy and healthy as long as possible!

– Dr. Mark Nielsen