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Vaccinations for pets

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Vaccinations for pets are extremely important. All dogs and cats should routinely receive vaccinations to prevent infections and diseases. The purpose of a vaccination is to prevent an infection, not to treat a disease.  Vaccines contain molecules known as antigens, which are components of bacteria or viruses.  When the immune system sees these antigens, it produces antibodies that are designed to neutralize the antigens.  So if the body comes across the actual bacteria or virus later on, the immune system remembers the antigens it saw previously in the vaccination, and sends out antibodies to stop the real infection from causing disease.

Vaccinations work only when they are given before an illness.  For the first several weeks of their lives, puppies and kittens are protected by antibodies they get from their mother.  These antibodies begin to “fade” and the young pet’s own immune system begins to develop around 6-8 weeks of age, when first vaccinations are usually given.  Booster vaccinations are then given about every 3-4 weeks until the pet is 3-4 months old.  In most cases, a booster vaccination is then given every year or so to make sure that the pet’s antibody levels remain high.

All dogs should routinely receive vaccinations for distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, and rabies.

  • Canine distemper is a viral disease that can affect several organs, including those of the respiratory and nervous systems.

  • Parvovirus can also affect several organs, especially those of the digestive tract and respiratory and nervous systems.

  • Hepatitis is a viral disease that attacks the liver.

  • Rabies is a fatal viral disease that attacks the brain in pets and people.

Depending on your dog’s individual situation, your veterinarian may also recommend additional vaccinations for diseases such as kennel cough and Lyme disease.

All cats should routinely receive vaccinations for panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and rabies.

  • Panleukopenia (also known as feline distemper) can affect several body systems, especially the bone marrow, which produces the blood cells.
  • Rhinotracheitis virus and calicivirus attack the respiratory system.
  • Rabies is a fatal viral disease that attacks the brain in pets and people.

Additional vaccinations that your veterinarian may recommend for your cat include feline leukemia and feline immunodeficiency virus (feline AIDS), which are viruses that attack the immune system.

Most pet vaccines are given under the skin.  Many pets are a little sluggish or may have a slight fever for a few days after vaccination.  Occasionally, the injection site develops soreness or a small swelling, and placing a cool compress over the area may help make your pet more comfortable.  You should contact your veterinarian if soreness or swelling lasts more than a day or two.

Q&A

How do vaccines work?

Vaccines expose the body to components of bacteria and viruses, so that the immune system is prepared to fight infection and can prevent illness if natural exposure occurs later.  

Can vaccines be used to treat illness in sick pets?

No, vaccinations work only when they are given before an illness.  

When should puppies and kittens be vaccinated?

The first vaccinations are usually given around 6-8 weeks of age, when maternal protection starts to wear off.  Booster vaccinations are then given about every 3-4 weeks until the pet is 3-4 months old.  

Will my pet experience any side effects from vaccination?

Many pets are a little sluggish or may have a slight fever for a few days after vaccination.  There may occasionally be soreness or a small swelling at the injection site.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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