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Vaccinations – Does my pet need them and how often?

Vaccinations – Does my pet need them and how often?

People often ask how often their pet needs vaccinating: it’s one of the most common questions I hear in consultation. There are varying opinions but most vets will ground their recommendations in science.

Most vaccines are registered for yearly use. This means they will guarantee efficacy for a 12 month period after the initial puppy or kitten booster program. Some canine vaccines are registered for triannual vaccination, meaning they guarantee efficacy for 3 years. Vaccines are also broken down into ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ vaccines. Core vaccines are what protect against diseases found everywhere, and non-core vaccines are recommended based on the area you live in and the challenge your pet is expected to face by the disease.

Dog Vaccinations:

In dogs the core vaccine protects against Parvovirus, Distemper and Hepatitis (this is the C3 vaccine). Most vaccines are registered for yearly use, although the Duramune vaccines are registered for 3-yearly use. Non-core vaccines include the Kennel Cough duo (the C5 components of vaccine), Coronavirus and Leptospirosis (the C7 components of the vaccine). In our region we don’t see much of Corona or Lepto so it’s generally not included in vaccinations, but if you lived in North Queensland then you would almost certainly have it as there is a higher prevalence of the disease up there that your dog needs protecting against. Kennel Cough must be boosted yearly, and most kennels will require you to have all the vaccinations (Core + Kennel Cough = C5) as they aren’t on board with the triannual vaccinations but it pays to just ring your boarding facility and check their requirements.

Current protocols for puppies are 3 puppy vaccines, 4 weeks apart starting at 8 weeks and finishing no earlier than 16 weeks of age. Boosters should occur at 15 months and then either yearly or biannually or triannually after this. This is in accord with the WSAVA guidelines:


Cat Vaccinations:

In cats the core vaccine provides protection against Calicivirus, Herpesvirus and Panleukopaenia virus (this is the F3 vaccine). Sometimes kittens can be infected with Calicivirus and Herpesvirus from their mother and can become chronic carriers. In this instance vaccination will not stop them having the virus, but the other components are important to protect against. Non-core components include Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV), Leukaemia (FeLV) and Chlamydia (the extra component found in F4 vaccines). FIV is recommended if your cat goes outside and has interactions with cats of unknown FIV status as FIV is most commonly spread during fights and is an incurable disease. Leukopaenia is a viral disease that causes bone marrow problems and is commonly spread by close contact and fighting. It is normally seen in young cats so early protection is essential to prevent transmission. Both FIV and FeLV can be transmitted from Queen to her kittens so it’s important to ensure your Queen is disease-free before breeding. Recommendations for kittens are as for puppies, that is 3 kitten vaccinations and yearly boosters. There are no current triannual vaccines for cats. You can read the WSAVA guidelines on cat vaccination here:


Rabbit Vaccinations:

Rabbits need protection from Calicivirus (different to the feline strain) which causes a bleeding syndrome and is very hard to cure. It is spread by mosquitos so unless your rabbit is pretty much 100% indoors then it can be infected. The label usage is for two vaccinations if your rabbit is under 12wks of age, and yearly thereafter though with the recent release of a new Korean strain of Calici into the wild population current recommendations are for 6-monthly vaccinations until a strain-specific vaccine can be manufactured (the current vaccine protects against a related strain of Calici). This is the only vaccine available for rabbits. As an interesting trivia fact, rabbits find the human strain of Herpesvirus fatal, so never kiss your rabbit if you have a coldsore!

Ferret Vaccinations:

Ferrets can contract Canine Distemper so the same recommendations as puppies are given with respect to vaccination. As there are no registered vaccines for ferrets, off-label usage of the canine C3 vaccine is used and is efficacious in protecting ferrets from the disease. We use ⅓ of a vial of C3 to protect ferrets, and it should be boosted yearly as there is no evidence of triannual protection. Ferrets can also contract human influenza which can make them very sick, so if you have the flu ensure you wash your hands, and don’t let them get too close to your face in case you infect them!

Why do young animals need more vaccinations than older animals?

Young animals often get some protection in the form of antibodies from their mothers’ colostrum, and the exact amount we don’t know but it will wane somewhere between 8 and 16 weeks leaving them without protection and most susceptible to disease. As we don’t know how much antibody an infant has we vaccinate repeatedly to cover them in case it’s the 8 week mark, or around 12 weeks, or even 16 weeks when they enter their susceptible period. If we vaccinate them when they still have some antibodies from their mum then these antibodies will bind the vaccine and their immune system will not be activated to produce their own antibodies. If we vaccinate them twice in their window of susceptibility then that’s ok – they make antibodies to protect them against the disease! So the puppy that drank lots of colostrum might have antibodies to last him until 16 weeks and won’t actually respond until the last vaccination, but the runt that didn’t get much colostrum may respond, and need the 8 week vaccine to remain protected.

Pet Vaccination chart showing the window of susceptibility

Image courtesy of North Central Animal Hospital

How can I tell if my pet needs vaccination?:

When we vaccinate, we put a tiny bit of the virus or ‘bug’ that has been modified so that it doesn’t cause disease, under the skin. This allows the immune system to ‘see’ it and make antibodies to it. Antibodies take about 10 days to reach full levels after vaccination. Once your pet has passed the initial infant booster schedule and has had their first adult vaccine you can decide if you would like to vaccinate again. Of course this is strongly recommended to protect your pet, but if you aren’t sure if your pet needs it you can test their level of antibodies: this is called TITRE TESTING. A titre is essentially the level of antibody for a given infectious disease. For dogs we can do in-house Parvo titres to tell you if you dog has enough antibodies to last, or needs a boost (we just need a bit of blood). For other dog diseases, and all cat diseases we need to send blood off to the laboratory as no in-house diagnostics exist just yet. This can be very useful for pets with immune-mediated diseases where we have to be careful about stimulating their immune system in case we initiate a recurrence or crisis in the disease.

The idea of titre testing is so that you can choose to vaccinate only when necessary, rather than blanket vaccinating yearly or on a schedule. In North America titre testing is quite popular as there have been some issues with tumours in cats at vaccination sites, and some controversy over whether immune diseases are a result of over-stimulation of the immune system. It’s simple in that if your titres come back low, then protection isn’t adequate and you need to vaccinate. If titres are adequate then we leave things a bit longer and recheck again after a period of time (6 or 12 months). If you choose to vaccinate less than annually we still recommend yearly health checks to ensure your pet is ok in between visits: we can pick up things in the interim years rather than waiting for them to advance until your vaccination checkup.

Here is a link to the benefits of health checks from the AVA: http://www.ava.com.au/sites/default/files/documents/Other/Annual-health-check-brochure.pdf

And finally, here is a link to position statement from the AVA on vaccination:

If you have any questions about vaccination, or would like to titre-test your dog or cat then give us a call on 6771 0200 to book a consultation.

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