Vaccines…Am I Doing the Right thing for my Pet?

By Dr. Libby Gutting, DVM

Over the past several years, vaccination has become a hot topic, with people and with our pets.  What is scientific fact is that there are several disease for which there is no cure, but only vaccination to prevent them.  There are disease that used to plague the human population that have all but been eradicated solely because of widespread vaccination.  It is safe to say that vaccinations cause more good than harm, and if we were as diligent at vaccinating our pets appropriately as we have been with ourselves, several diseases that kill many animals a year would no longer be a concern. 

While there can be serious reactions to vaccinations, some immediate and some long term, these are a rare minority.  If veterinarians did not believe vaccines were safe on the whole, we would not recommend them. 

There are vaccines for our pets that are considered “core” vaccines, in that, these are vaccines recommended for every dog or every cat, no matter age or lifestyle.  These include the DHPP vaccination in dogs, the FVRCP vaccination in cats, and the rabies vaccination in both species. 

The DHPP vaccine prevents multiple disease, with the most prevalent and deadly being distemper virus and parvovirus.  The distemper component is extremely effective and is likely why this is a rare virus to see in this region of the country.  Distemper effects many body systems – respiratory, neurologic and the GI tract.   Parvovirus effects those cells that divide rapidly, so in puppies it tends to cause GI disease (bloody foul smelling diarrhea, anorexia) and destroys their immune system.  It is commonly seen in the Milwaukee area and is deadly without treatment.  Both disease, being viruses, do not have an effective specific treatment, although some animals may survive with intensive supportive care.  Both are very contagious to other dogs.  Parvovirus is extremely hardy in the environment.  It is spread through the feces and can live in the soil for months to years.  This means when walking an unvaccinated dog, there is the likelihood of potential exposure if another dog in the past several months with parvovirus walked through the same areas.

The FVRCP vaccine in cats protects against multiple contagious virus, most being respiratory in nature.  The most important and a very effective component of this vaccine is against panleukopenia.  This virus of cats is sometimes commonly called “feline distemper,” but this is actually a misnomer.  Panleukopenia is a parvovirus of cats.  Instead of prolonged disease, many kittens become so weak so quickly with this disease that the first symptoms can be sudden death.  There is no cure, but some cats may survive with intense veterinary treatment. 

Rabies virus is one of the most familiar viruses to most pet owners.  Rabies can infect any mammal and is most often spread by bites from wildlife.  Rabies vaccination and prevention is taken very seriously and a legally required vaccine for dogs and cats in most communities (including all the municipalities in Milwaukee County) because it IS 100% FATAL!  It is uncommon in this particular region, even in the wildlife, but it is not eradicated.  So once again, it is a virus that our pets can contract that there is no cure for, but the vaccine is very effective at preventing.  Symptoms of rabies can vary from sudden death to aggressive behavior followed by a quick (few days) deterioration in health and death. 

The common theme with all of these core vaccines is that they are protecting against viruses, many of which can be deadly, for which there is no cure.  Which means a simple vaccine as prevention for your pets is the best practice!  Frequency to give these vaccines varies, from every few weeks in puppies and kittens, to eventually every 3 years in adult animals.  Of course introducing anything to our pets that could potentially (again, although rarely) cause a reaction we want to do with the least frequency as possible, so check with your veterinarian on their recommendation for your pets.

Beyond “core” vaccinations, there are other “non-core” vaccinations that may be offered for your pet by your regular veterinarian.  At MADACC, we only consider the above and the Bordetella or “kennel cough” vaccine “core” in our shelter population.  Non-core vaccines may have varying effectiveness and a higher risk of an adverse reaction, so they are based on your pet’s lifestyle.  For example, there is a vaccine against Lyme disease for dogs.  Lyme disease is only present in certain parts of the country, so it may not be recommended in every area. 

A commonality for the diseases vaccinated against with core vaccinations is they are, not only commonly fatal and viruses, but can be spread dog to dog or cat to cat with close or direct contact with bodily fluids.  As such, MADACC vaccinates all stray animals that can be safely handled at intake with DHPP and Bordetella vaccinations for dogs and FVRCP for cats.  These vaccines, while not instantly effective, can be effective within a few days to a week and help protect them during their stay in the shelter.  It also helps our community achieve what we call “herd immunity,” along with our public vaccination clinics for owned pets.  The more animals vaccinates against these diseases in our community, especially those animals that may be out and about, the less that are susceptible to getting and spreading the disease. 

In conclusion, vaccination is still our best prevention and is safe for the great majority of animals.  We are active proponents of a regular vaccination plan for your pets, based on your veterinarian’s recommendation.  Before release, all of the animals being adopted from our facility will have been given age appropriate core vaccinations, not just for their protection, but for the other pets in our community.