To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate? That’s a Good Question.

Vaccines have become a hot-button issue for veterinarians and pet owners alike over the past few years. If you ask four veterinarians for their opinions on cat and dog vaccines, you are likely to get five answers! In this piece, I will try and shed a little light on what vaccines are out there for dogs and cats, and the diseases that they protect them against.

Before we start down that path, though – a couple of absolutes.  You won’t find me using the words ‘always’ or ‘never’ very often, but with vaccines there are a few instances where their use is warranted; ALWAYS vaccinate every dog with a vaccine that contains parvovirus when they are puppies!  Many aspects of the vaccine controversy are open to debate, but that one point gets nearly universal agreement from all sides.

Vaccines used to be known as the ‘yearly shots’ and veterinarians promoted them because they were a low-risk (we thought) way to get patients into the hospital once a year to have a checkup.  In this way, problems could be caught early, and the veterinarian could form a close bond with the patient and their family. We now know that, in certain circumstances, vaccines can actually cause (or at least, contribute to) certain diseases, so the tool we were using to help our patients ended up causing harm in a small number of them.  Diseases like vaccine-associated sarcoma in cats (a type of cancer) and some autoimmune diseases in dogs (like immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, or IMHA) started cropping up, and the era of the ‘yearly shot’ was over just like that.

I definitely don’t want to give the impression that vaccines are bad or evil. I am not anti-vaccine by any means, and my dogs and cats receive the appropriate vaccines for their risk level. Vaccines have saved millions of lives for both people and pets over the past few decades. Rabies runs wild in less-developed countries, but because we enjoy a good public health system in the US and veterinarians have been vigilant about getting dogs vaccinated against this dreaded disease, the risk of getting rabies in the US is quite low.

So how do you decide what vaccines to get for your pet, how to assess the risk and make the most of the benefit? One easy way is find a veterinarian you trust, and one who will openly speak with you about vaccine benefits and risks, and who will try and craft a vaccine plan that meets your set of circumstances. Vaccines recommendations change every year, and veterinarians need to work hard to stay current.

For many dogs, yearly vaccines are no longer needed after the first few years of life, and there are blood tests for assessing their immunity (known as ‘titers’) than can help you and your veterinarian make decisions on what vaccines to administer and when.

Since cats have slightly different lifestyles than dogs (some outdoor cats are very social and at risk for contracting some diseases, while others live more protected lives indoors), vaccines for cats are a little simpler. Cat owners still need to abide by the ground rules set above, though –kittens need vaccines on a set schedule for the first couple of years of life.

The actual vaccine itself – the shot that your dog or cat gets – is usually a mix of little pieces of the agents we are trying to prevent in our pets.  Many diseases can be combined into one injection to save time, money and ouchies.  These little, inactive bits of the infectious agents (they are almost always bacteria or viruses) are intended to stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies – proteins that kill the disease-causing agent.  They also stimulate specific cells of the immune system to fight these diseases and stay on guard in case they infect the pet. It’s a little like giving them a mild case of the disease in order to make sure they don’t get a really bad case of it.

Let’s cover some of the specific diseases that vaccines are meant to protect your pet against.  There are new vaccines coming out every day, so I won’t be able to cover all of them, but there are 5 or 6 key diseases that are the most important.  In addition, there are now vaccines available that are intended to confer protection against relatively minor conditions (like dental disease), so make sure you talk to your veterinarian about how real the risk of the disease is for your pet before they get the jab.

The diseases we’ll go over here are (diseases that can be transmitted to humans indicated by an asterisk):


  • Parvovirus
  • Rabies*
  • Distemper
  • Leptospirosis*
  • Bordetella (kennel cough)
  • Coronavirus
  • Infectious Canine Hepatitis
  • Parainfluenza


  • Feline distemper/panleukopenia
  • Feline herpesvirus
  • Rabies*
  • Feline viral rhinotracheitis
  • Feline leukemia

Photo credit: Zoey, by Charlene Shelsky

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