Several serious infectious diseases of dogs can be prevented by vaccination. Immunity to disease develops either after exposure to the natural disease or after being given a vaccine – a very weak or dead form of the infection. Allowing a dog to develop immunity by natural exposure to dangerous infections such as parvovirus runs the risk of him contracting severe illness or death. We advise vaccination of dogs against serious killer diseases. This immune protection wears off over time and so booster vaccinations are necessary to ensure continued protection. In addition, some insurance policies are mad null and void if vaccinations aren’t current – read your small print.
Which diseases do we vaccinate against?
Parvovirus disease: weakness and severe vomiting and bloody diarrhoea. Dogs, especially puppies, dehydrate very quickly and die due to dehydration and, possibly, severe blood loss. In puppies under the age of eight weeks the virus can also damage the heart muscle. Parvovirus can be caught directly from other infected dogs, but the virus can also survive for several months in the environment. It can be picked up by a dog just sniffing in the park, for example. Illness usually develops within ten days of being infected.
Intensive treatment is frequently necessary for dogs with parvovirus infection. Unfortunately, even with intensive care, not all dogs can be saved.
Clinical signs in mildly affected dogs include fever, poor appetite, a painful tummy and pale or jaundiced (yellow) gums. More severely affected dogs can develop bleeding and some patients are left with kidney damage. A characteristic sign during recovery is a blue haziness of the cornea (the clear part of the eye) – a condition known as ‘blue eye’. Infected dogs shed the virus in all body secretions, especially urine and faeces, and may continue to be infectious for some time, even after they have survived the disease. As the virus can live in the environment for several months, it can be picked up by a dog during a normal walk without necessarily meeting an infected animal.
With intensive therapy many dogs, but unfortunately not all, can survive hepatitis.
The virus causing canine hepatitis is different from the human virus, so people cannot become infected with this disease.
Distemper virus can attack almost every organ, so affected dogs can develop many clinical signs ranging from fever, severe conjunctivitis, pneumonia, vomiting and diarrhoea, to meningitis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Dogs that survive acute distemper are often left with brain damage, leading to tics or seizures (fitting). They may also develop thickening of their paw pads and nose (‘hard-pad disease’) which can be painful. Infected puppies that survive the acute form often have teeth with damaged enamel which leads to early tooth decay. Infected dogs shed the virus in all their body fluids and can continue shedding virus for a long time after surviving the acute disease. Virus particles can also be transmitted through the air.
Intensive treatment is usually necessary for dogs with distemper and they may then survive the initial acute disease. However, further on-going treatment is often necessary to try to control the long-term signs of the disease (fits and/or hard-pad disease), which is not easy.
Leptospirosis is the only bacterial disease included in dogs’ vaccine protocols. Several forms of the Leptospira bacterium exist, but all cause liver and kidney disease and often failure of these organs. This disease is a zoonosis – humans can become infected via the dog. In human medicine leptospirosis is known as ‘Weil’s disease’ and there is no vaccination available. Leptospirosis bacteria can survive for a long time in damp or wet surroundings (eg puddles or near rivers). They are also transmitted by small mammals like rats, mice or voles, dogs are potentially at risk on every walk. Many dogs can survive with intensive treatment, but may be left with liver or kidney damage. As infected dogs shed large amounts of Leptospira with their urine, owners are at risk of catching the disease from an infected pet. In 2014, one of the main vaccination manufacturers, MSD, added new “strains” to their lepto vaccine, because the rapid increase in european travel has brought two new types of the disease into the UK.
Kennel cough is actually not a single disease, but a group of diseases causing very similar clinical signs. Any cough that it transmitted easily to other dogs is called kennel cough. Several ‘bugs’, both bacterial and viral, can cause this problem. Kennel cough vaccine is not included in the routine vaccination protocol, but instead is given on request, for example when dogs go into kennels or attend shows. In many cases kennel cough is a mild disease, although the cough can last for several weeks. In some dogs, however, especially the young, the frail, those with pre-existing heart or lung problems or flat-nosed breeds, it can be more worrying and difficult to treat.
When should puppies be vaccinated?
Current advice from our vaccine manufacturer is that puppies need two vaccinations given 4 weeks apart. The first vaccination is usually given when the puppy is 8 weeks old, followed by the second at 12 weeks. Full protection should start about 10 to 14 days after the second vaccination has been given. The timing of these vaccinations is a balance between, on the one hand, a desire to get the puppies vaccinated early, so that they can go out and socialise, and on the other hand, whether the vaccine will work properly (older puppies tend to get better immunity from the vaccine). In recent years the vaccinations have been brought earlier as an acknowledgement of the fact that behavioural problems caused by a lack of socialisation are a major cause of re-homing and even euthanasia of dogs. With the above schedule, your puppy would not be “safe” to go outside and mix with other dogs until 14 weeks of age. We can give the distemper, parvovirus and hepatitis part of the vaccine at 8 and 10 weeks, thus allowing them to attend indoor puppy classes etc. from 11-12 weeks old. The only part of the vaccine that must be given at 12 weeks is Leptospirosis and you will see from the above description, that pups kept indoors, socialised only with other pups, are very unlikely to come across this disease
How early? Puppies receive maternal antibodies from their mother. This immunity starts to reduce at about 6 weeks of age, but it may still be protecting the puppy until it is 12 weeks old. Unfortunately, if this immunity is still protecting the puppy when we vaccinate it, mum’s antibodies will prevent the vaccine from stimulating the pup’s own immune system. From trial data, we know when the vaccines are most likely to begin working to create an immune response successfully. Vaccines given later lead to a better response, but we also could be leaving our pups exposed to the real diseases without Mum’s antibodies and without an immunity induced by vaccination.
Some breeders will vaccinate their puppies for parvovirus very early if they perceive they are at risk. These puppies will still need the full vaccine course, as outlined above.
Our vaccination recommendations for puppies:
- Initial course of 2 injections 4 weeks apart
- The first vaccine no earlier than 8 weeks of age
- The second vaccine no earlier than 12 weeks of age
How often should a dog be vaccinated?
The basic answer is that a dog should be vaccinated again when the level of protection starts to wear off. This can be different for each dog and also depends on the type of vaccine used. Currently the vaccine manufacturers advise vaccinating against distemper, parvovirus and hepatitis in puppyhood (see above), then at one year of age and every three years thereafter. Leptospirosis and, if necessary, kennel cough, have to be vaccinated against yearly, as the protection does not last very long. This time period is set by manufacturers to ensure that the level of protection stays high.
Why is a health check necessary before vaccination?
An annual health check plays a vital role in the process of vaccination. It is important that the dog is healthy at the time of vaccination and that the immune system is working properly and not focussed on another illness/issue. If we find cause for concern, the vaccine will be postponed and we will either treat the problem we find or we will advise further tests to find out what is going on, if a diagnosis is not possible just on clinical exam. Only after we have sorted out the problem will we ask you to come again to have your dog vaccinated. A half-yearly health check, between vaccinations, is also recommended especially for our oldies.
Can something go wrong after vaccination?
These days vaccination is a very safe procedure and problems rarely encountered. Unusual reactions (‘vaccine reactions’) are very rarely reported and the risk of illness from one of the diseases is far greater than the risk of a vaccine reaction. Occasionally a small skin lump appears at the site of the vaccination, but this usually disappears within a few days. If a lump appears and does not get smaller go away in a few days (5-10) please notify us and we will make an appointment for this to be checked as soon as possible.
Is regular vaccination still recommended?
We strongly recommend regular vaccination. We still treat dogs with the diseases mentioned above. The outcome of these infections can be very serious or fatal and can be avoided by regular vaccination. With the increase in European travel, we have already seen the change with Leptospirosis. How long will it be before we are seeing distemper on a regular basis? The only vaccine that incoming dogs have to have had is Rabies. Which brings us to another point; illegal importation with all the problems and diseases that brings, including the chance of re-introducing Rabies to a country proud to be clear of it for many years.