This is the seventh part of an ongoing series describing how people are developing new expectations when it comes to veterinary care for their pets. Parts one through six can be found at www.speakingforspot.com/blog.
As invaluable as vaccinations are for protecting canine health, determining which vaccines are appropriate and how frequently they should be administered are no longer simple decisions. Gone are the days of behaving like “Stepford wives” simply because you’ve received a vaccine reminder postcard or email. Vaccinations are no different than any other medical procedure. They should not be administered without individualized discussion with your veterinarian and consideration of the potential risks and benefits. Please know that having such a discussion with your veterinarian is a perfectly reasonable expectation, and your input is an invaluable part of the vaccine decision-making process.
Consider the following:
• There are currently more than a dozen canine vaccinations to choose from! Back in the days when I was just a pup there were only five, and decision-making regarding vaccine selection for an individual dog was far less complicated.
• Over the past decade we’ve learned that, for some vaccines, the duration of protection is far longer than previously recognized. In the past we vaccinated against distemper, parvovirus, and rabies annually. We now know that these vaccinations, when given to adult dogs, provide protection for a minimum of three years and, in some cases protection is life-long.
• The duration and degree of immune protection triggered by a vaccine is variable, not only based on vaccine manufacturer, but from dog to dog as well.
• Other than for rabies (state mandated), vaccination protocols are anything but standardized. There are no set rules veterinarians must follow when determining which vaccines to give and how often they are administered. Unfortunately, some vets continue to vaccinate for distemper and parvovirus annually even though we know that these adult vaccines provide protection for a minimum of three years. Some vets give multiple inoculations at once, others administer just one at a time.
• Increasingly clear-cut documentation shows that vaccines have the potential to cause many side effects. While vaccine reactions/complications are still considered to be infrequent, they can be life threatening.
What you can do:
As your dog’s savvy medical advocate, what can you do to be sure that he or she is neither under or overvaccinated? Here are some guidelines for making wise vaccine choices for your best buddy:
1. Educate yourself about available canine vaccinations and the diseases they are capable of preventing (in some cases treating the disease, should it arise, might be preferable to the risks and expense associated with vaccination). Learn about duration of vaccine protection and potential side effects. Read the chapter called “The Vaccination Conundrum” in Speaking for Spot. It provides detailed discussion about all aspects of canine vaccinations including the diseases they prevent, adverse vaccination reactions, and the topic of vaccine serology (blood testing that helps determine if your dog is truly in need of vaccine booster). The American Animal Hospital Association’s “Canine Vaccine Guidelines” is also an excellent source of information (http://secure.aahanet.org/eweb/dynamicpage.aspx?site=resources&webcode=CanineVaccineGuidelines).
2. Talk with your veterinarian to figure out which diseases your dog has potential exposure to. A miniature poodle who rarely leaves his Manhattan penthouse likely has no exposure to Lyme disease (spread by ticks); however a Lab that goes camping and duck hunting may have significant exposure.
3. Alert your veterinarian to any symptoms or medical issues your dog is experiencing. It is almost always best to avoid vaccinating a sick dog — better to let his immune system concentrate on getting rid of a current illness rather than creating a vaccine “distraction.” If your dog has a history of autoimmune (immune-mediated) disease, it may be advisable to alter his vaccine protocol or even forego ongoing vaccinations — be sure to discuss this with your vet.
4. Let your vet know if your dog has had vaccine side effects in the past. If the reaction was quite serious, she may recommend that you forego future vaccinations, necessitating an official letter to your local government agency excusing your pup from rabies• related requirements.
5. Talk to your veterinarian about vaccine serology. This involves testing a blood sample from your dog to determine if adequate vaccine protection still exists (remember, vaccine protection for the core diseases lasts a minimum of three years). While such testing isn’t perfect, in general if the blood test indicates active and adequate protection, there is currently no need for a vaccine booster. Serology may make more sense than simply vaccinating at set intervals.
6. Talk to your veterinarian about the potential side effects of proposed vaccinations, what you should be watching for, and whether or not there are any restrictions for your dog in the days immediately following vaccination.
What happens if your veterinarian declines vaccine discussion and simply wants to vaccinate based on what he or she thinks is appropriate? Time to find yourself a new veterinarian who is progressive enough to have a working relationship with people who choose to be a stellar medical advocates for their dogs! Is your vet willing to have open-minded discussion with you about your dog’s vaccinations?
Best wishes for a happy new year.
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.