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When it comes to your dog's health, the single most important thing you can do for your pet is make sure she gets her shots. Many of the most dangerous and infectious canine diseases we know of can be easily prevented with safe and effective vaccines.
It would be nice if all of these vaccinations could be handled with a single, quick injection right after the puppy is born. Alas, it's not that easy. Puppies, like human babies, receive some immunity while still in the womb, and others with first milk. Unlike in humans, however, that immunity fades in the puppy very quickly, during the first few weeks of life. That's why vaccines have to take over.
As is so often true, timing is everything. Only a veterinarian armed with your dog's complete medical history can determine which vaccines should be given and when they'll be most effective. In general, however, shots begin when your dog is four to six weeks old and will continue until she's more than 16 weeks of age. Many of the most important vaccines can be given together, in what's often called the DHLPP vaccine. Some, like leptospirosis and rabies, require annual boosters that will be a routine part of a checkup.
Diseases that can be prevented with vaccines
- Rabies is a potentially deadly and highly contagious disease, dangerous to humans as well as dogs. Though it's rare in North America and the canine-specific version has recently been eradicated from the U.S., rabies is still a vicious malady that infects many mammals in the wild â and they can bite and infect your unvaccinated dog. Your puppy's first vaccination will come when she is three to four months old; annual boosters are required.
- Canine distemper was a major killer of canines in the past; now it is common only in rescue shelters and pet stores. But it's still widely seen in the wild, so it is always a risk. Distemper is devastating disease that can wreck a dog's health, especially its nervous system. A potentially fatal virus, it most often seen in young dogs â though it can occur at any age. It is the "D" in the DHLPP vaccine, which is usually given six to eight weeks after birth.
- Canine parvovirus is one of the most common and hardest-to-kill viruses in the world, and every species has its unique version. Eighty percent fatal, it is a tough virus that can survive on objects, such as furniture, for some time. And it can kill in a matter of days. Maternal antibodies interfere with the vaccine's effectiveness early on, and there's often a window of vulnerability, different for every puppy, that falls between the end of the period of genetic immunity and the beginning of the vaccine's protection. Only a vet can determine how early and how often your dog may need this vaccine.
- Canine leptospirosis is actually a bacterium â a spirochete, if you want to get technical about it â that can infect humans as well as dogs. The spiral-shaped parasite replicates in various organs and interferes with proper function; when it's in full bloom, it can cause chronic kidney and liver failure and even death. An annual booster is necessary, and, in some high-risk regions, a booster every six months is required. Check with your vet about how often your dog should receive this vaccine. (This is the "L" in the DHLPP injection.)
- Canine adenovirus/Viral hepatitis is a blood disease that adversely affects the liver. Initially, the virus affects the tonsils and larynx, causing a sore throat, coughing, and occasionally pneumonia. As it enters the bloodstream, it can affect the eyes, liver, and kidneys. The cornea â the clear portion of the eyes â can appear cloudy or bluish, a condition that vets call "hepatitis blue eye." As serious as it is, canine adenovirus shouldn't be confused with human hepatitis. This particular bug can't pass to human beings. It is the "H" in DHLPP and requires yearly boosters.
- Canine parainfluenza is another respiratory tract infection that's highly contagious but relatively mild and self-limiting (usually five to 10 days). Usually transmitted by the nasal secretions of infected dogs, it can produce a persistent cough and lead to even more persistent bronchitis. Though it's not terribly dangerous in itself, parainfluenza can open the door to other opportunistic infections and respiratory problems; that's why the vaccine is a standard part of the DHLPP vaccine (the last "P").
- Infectious tracheobronchitis ("Kennel cough") is a complex of viruses that can cause a harsh, hacking cough, sounding very much like a chest cold in humans. It is most commonly spread in kennels or other group situations, and is only a serious condition if your dog is very old, very young, or has an immune system that is already compromised by other illnesses or parasites. It usually resolves itself on its own, but it can be avoided entirely with regular vaccinations. Many kennels or boarding facilities require a current immunization before they'll let your dog in the door.
- Canine coronavirus is almost as prevalent as parvo, and nearly as dangerous. Its effects can range from the equivalent of a bad flu to terminal illness. Most veterinarians now include it in their vaccination programs, giving it in tandem with the DHLPP vaccine (sometimes you'll see it referred to as "DHLPP+C").
Vaccinations have become commonplace for dogs today, as they can effectively prevent potentially serious canine diseases like distemper, rabies, and hepatitis. Not only can regular vaccinations protect your pet's health, they can also keep the human members of your family healthy as well â some canine illnesses can be transferred to humans.
While annual vaccinations have been the general rule for some time, recent studies have shown that canine vaccinations may be effective for longer periods of time than originally thought. As vaccinations have become safer and better customized to each individual dog, it is becoming more common for veterinarians to recommend less frequent vaccinations that are tailored to your dog's specific needs.
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) released a set of vaccination guidelines in 2003 which was revised in 2006 to help vets determine how often vaccinations should be given to dogs, and which were most important to include. These guidelines were developed by many professionals in the field of canine health care, including veterinarians, immunologists, infectious disease specialists and researchers.
Risks for various types of diseases will vary from city to city across the country, and may even fluctuate within different areas of the same city. This is why it is so important to work closely with your veterinarian to determine which immunizations are important for your dog, and how often he should have them.
Health risks associated with vaccinations
Some pet owners worry that vaccinating their dogs will carry health risks as well. While any medical procedure, including vaccinations, do carry some degree of risk, the risk is generally much greater if you do not have your dog vaccinated at all.
If you are concerned about the potential side effects that the vaccinations can bring, you can talk to your veterinarian about what is best for your pet. Keep in mind that your vet is there to protect your dog, and will not bring unnecessary risks in his health care. He will base his decision to vaccinate on a number of factors, including the lifestyle and age of your dog, as well as his potential to be exposed to a variety of diseases.
Reactions to vaccinations are relatively rare, and will generally include pain or swelling at the point of injection. Sometimes dogs have an allergic reaction to a vaccination, which will appear fairly quickly after the shot is given.
If you suspect an allergic reaction in your dog, contact your veterinarian immediately, since these types of problems can become quite serious and even fatal. An even rarer reaction to a vaccination will cause your dog's immune system to respond by attacking the tissue within the body, resulting in disorders of the skin, joints, blood or nervous system. These situations can also be very serious, but are fortunately also quite rare.
There are two different types of vaccinations that your dog should receive. The first type is called core vaccines, and includes the vaccinations that are considered essential for all dogs, involving diseases that are easily transferred and/or fatal. These diseases are rabies, adenovirus, parvovirus and distemper, and all four are found throughout the continent of North America.
Other vaccinations are considered to be non-core vaccines, and include protection against diseases that are dependent upon environmental exposure or lifestyle. These are the vaccinations that you will need to discuss with your veterinarian to determine if your dog needs them, and include Lyme disease, kennel cough and leptospirosis vaccines.