Vaccinations are critical for maintaining good health; they can provide an individual with immunity to a variety of serious diseases. This has revolutionised modern medicine for humans – the first great achievement being the complete eradication of small pox by vaccination.
Like humans, animals too are benefitting greatly from vaccination. It is thanks to vaccination that the spread of serious diseases, such as rabies, has been controlled.
Recently however, more and more arguments are coming forward suggesting that we may be vaccinating our pets too much, but is this a bad thing?
What is Vaccination?
We should all be familiar with vaccination, after all, the government spends millions on vaccination plans to ensure that kids get vaccinated at school at an early age. But what is in a vaccine? How do they work?
Vaccines contain a weakened or dead version of a pathogen. Some vaccines just contain bits of a pathogen! All produce the same effect however and that is to stimulate the immune system. Because the pathogen is either dead, or weakened, you get the benefit of developing immunity to the pathogen without getting the disease.
What is Immunity?
So vaccines help you develop immunity, but what exactly is immunity and how do they do it?
If you are infected with a pathogen you have never been infected with before, your body (and this is the same for our dogs and cats) responds slowly. This is because it needs to identify the invader and build up an army of white blood cells that then go on to kill the pathogen. Because this process takes a relatively long time, the pathogen is able to reproduce and make you sick.
If the same pathogen was to infect you again, your body remembers the invader and having already identified it – your body is able to rapidly produce the army of white blood cells it needs to destroy the invader before it is able to reproduce in large numbers. This is great news as it means you don’t get sick! (Or if you do, it isn’t as bad as the original infection).
Vaccines simulate the original infection, but the low, weakened dose allows your body to identify the pathogen with a minimal risk of it making you sick.
Vaccination in Dogs & Cats
Normally, we vaccinate our dogs and cats shortly after birth and then take them in for a booster after around a year. We are sometimes advised to continue bringing them in regularly to maintain their immunity against disease, but is this the right advice?
Broadly speaking, there are two main types of vaccine for dogs and cats; ‘core’ and ‘non-core’. These can differ between areas around the globe, but generally speaking, the vaccines below are a good example of typical core and non-core vacciantions:
Core Dog Vaccinations:
- Canine Distemper
- Canine Parvovirus
- Canine Hepatitis Virus
Non-Core Dog Vaccinations:
- Kennel Cough
- Canine Parainfluenza Virus
- Lyme Disease
- Canine Coronavirus
- Many others…
Core Cat Vaccinations:
- Feline Influenza (Viral Rhinotracheitis)
- Feline Calcivirus
- Feline Panleukopenia Virus
Non-Core Cat Vaccinations:
- Feline Leukemia Virus
- Feline Immunodeficiency Virus
- Bordetella (Kennel Cough)
- Many Others…
The Problems with Current Vaccination
Whilst it is a great thing that we have all these options available to us when considering vaccinating our pets, it does bring up a few problems. For instance, if you wanted to vaccinate your dog with all the recommended vaccinations and additional non-core vaccinations, you could end up regularly visiting the vets and have a large vet bill to go with it!
To deal with this, vaccine companies have created ‘multivalent’ vaccines – vaccines that are able to vaccinate a dog or cat against multiple diseases with only a single injection. Multivalent vaccines can introduce new problems however. In the USA, some multivalent vaccines now contain up to 8 different vaccine agents!
At present, multivalent vaccines are widely accepted, but increasing evidence suggests that they put excess strain on the immune system.
Giving multivalent boosters could be a problem due to the variations in the diseases they immunise against. For example – one of the vaccine agents might give immune protection for one disease for a year, whilst another may protect against a different disease for 10 years! If the multivalent booster is given each year, then it is just putting the immune system under unneeded stress.
The main problem with vaccinations in both dogs and cats however, is that they are not treated as individual patients. Whilst a leptospirosis vaccination may protect one dog for a year, it may protect a different dog for two or more. Factors that affect the strength of the immunity provided by a vaccine include:
- The type of vaccine
- How the vaccine is stored/preserved
- The age of the vaccine
- Whether additive were added to the vaccine
- The number of previous vaccinations given to the dog or cat
- The breed and genetic makeup of the dog or cat
- The pet’s age
- The health of the pet
- The pet’s diet
All these factors are something to consider – but even though we know that a vaccine can provide different pets with varied levels of immunity, it is fairly difficult to check when a booster is needed.
So, Are We Vaccination our Dogs and Cats too Frequently?
Unfortunately, we probably are. The yearly vaccinations, often recommended by vets are simply too frequent for most vaccine types and can put excess stress on our pets.
A 3 or 4 year vaccination schedule would be more appropriate in most cases with the exception of kennel cough and leptospirosis – which are known to require more frequent vaccination (around one a year).
Why is Frequent Vaccination a Problem?
If vaccines are safe, why should we worry about vaccinating too frequently? Well although, vaccines have an excellent safety record, they are not without their side effects. Although rare, frequent vaccination increases the probability of your pet developing these side effects, including:
- Allergic reaction to the vaccine
- Nerve damage
- Bone/Muscle wasting
Cases of vaccine induced conjunctivitis and alopecia (hair loss) have even been reported! Although there is always risk, remember that side effects are generally rare and vaccines have a very good safety record!
Do you think we vaccinate our pets too much? Or do you think that there is little harm in yearly vaccinations – the side effects are rare after all and there is still little evidence to suggest that over-vaccination is truly a bad thing.