Vaccines: Fact vs Myth

by Dr. Barb Eatock, DVM, BSc.


There has been a lot of controversy recently about the use of vaccines in humans and animals.  Currently, several countries in Europe are experiencing outbreaks of measles because vacination rates in children have decreased too low to protect the population as a whole.  Some of these cases of measles can result in severe consequences such as pneumonia or meningitis or even be fatal.  Research purporting to link the MMR (Measles-Mumps-Rubella) vaccine with the onset of autism have now been thoroughly debunked.

Similarly, vaccinating our pets has become more controversial recently.  We use vaccines in pets to prevent several serious illnesses:

  • Parvo is a virus that causes severe vomiting and diarrhea in dogs, which can be fatal or potentially result in a large veterinary bill for appropriate treatement.
  • Distemper is a virus that affects dogs and causes vomiting, diarrhea, respiratory signs and neurological signs such as seizures.  This disease is often fatal, even with treatment.
  • Panleukopenia (“feline distemper”) causes severe vomiting and diarrhea in cats and is often fatal.
  • Feline upper respiratory viruses cause sneezing and conjunctivitis and can occasionally be fatal in young kittens or immunosuppresed cats.
  • Feline leukemia causes signs such as frequent infections, anemia and certain types of cancer; clinical signs can sometimes be managed for a time but the virus is ultimately not treatable.
  • Rabies is a virus that causes neurological signs and is always fatal.  If your pet has been exposed to a rabid animal and your pet’s rabies vaccinations are not current, you may be required to quarantine  your pet for six months or potentially even euthanize him/her.

Vaccines occasionally cause side effects, ranging from lethargy, inappetance, a lump or pain at the vaccination site, to more severe side effects such as one in ten thousand chance of cancer in the case of the feline leukemia vaccine, or triggering the onset of autoimmune disease in genetically predisposed animals.  Allergic reactions such as facial swelling can also occur occasionally after a vaccination.

Here at the clinic we follow the AAHA guidelines and recommend three sets of puppy or kitten vaccinations, ideally at 8, 12 and 16 weeks, followed by a full set of vaccinations a year later.  After that point, we recommend rotating the vaccines on a 3-year cycle.  For example, one year a dog would get vaccinated for distemper, the next year parvo, then rabies the following year.  In this way, the animal is exposed to fewer antigens, helping to minimize adverse reactions to vaccinations.  Lifestyle factors are also considered when making vaccine recommendations; for example, the feline leukemia vaccine is only recommended in kittens, multicat households and cats with an outdoor lifestyle.  Bordetella (kennel cough) is recommended if a dog is around a lot of other dogs, such as at a boarding kennel, grooming facility, doggy day care, or puppy classes.  Blood tests (titres) can also be taken to determine whether an animal has a protective level of antibodies to certain viruses in order to determine whether boosters are necessary.

Avoiding vaccines altogether is very likely to result in severe illness or even the death of your pet.  Vaccinations for pets that are only indoors may be even more important than in outdoor pets, because outdoor pets are constantly being challenged by small doses of antigen in the environment, which helps boost their immunity; this does not happen with indoor pets, so if exposed, they are more likely to become severely ill.  However, this does not mean that an outdoor pet would be fully protected with these small exposures and could still become very ill.

Overvaccinating can cause problems too, so here at the clinic we strive to balance your pet’s vaccination needs with his health status and lifestyle.  If you have questions about your pet’s vaccinations, please do not hesitate to contact us.


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