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Important Vaccinations for Dogs and Cats

Making sure that your pet is kept up to date on vaccines is part of being a responsible pet owner. However, recommendations can differ between clinics and even between pets, and vaccine schedules can be confusing. Many owners also have concerns about overvaccination, and no one wants to cause their pet more harm than good. That said, it is important to understand which diseases you need to protect your pet against and why. In all cases, it’s best to work with your veterinarian to weigh the risks and benefits.

What Are Vaccines?
The purpose of a vaccine is to protect your pet against acquiring a specific disease. Vaccines contain antigens, which are essentially small segments of a disease-causing organism that, when given to your pet, stimulate his or her immune system to produce protective antibodies against the disease. Most vaccines generate only a mild response from the immune system. However, it is possible for some pets to have more severe reactions. Your vet can advise you of these reactions and what type of symptoms to watch for.

What types of vaccines are there?
Vaccines are generally broken down into two categories: core vaccines and non-core vaccines. Core vaccines protect against diseases known to cause significant illness in dogs and cats, those that are highly contagious and those that may be transmitted to humans. These vaccines are generally recommended for every healthy pet. Non-core vaccines are usually reserved for pets who are at higher risk for acquiring a specific disease. The vaccines that your pet requires to stay healthy will depend on age, health and lifestyle. Your veterinarian can help you determine which vaccines are appropriate for your pet. (Get details about vaccines for dogs and vaccines for cats.)
Why does my puppy or kitten require a series of vaccines?
When puppies and kittens are born, they acquire protective antibodies from their mothers through nursing. Before or around 16 weeks of age, these antibodies fade and no longer offer immunity. Without testing, it is impossible to know the level of antibody protection each pet has at any given time (some stray puppies and kittens, for example, might not have had the opportunity to nurse). The purpose of the vaccine series is to provide immunization during a time when your pet might not be protected. Adhering closely to this schedule is extremely important for proper immunity. If you miss a vaccine appointment during this series, your veterinarian might recommend additional boosters to ensure that your pet is adequately protected.
What if I don’t know my pet’s vaccine history?
If your pet is an adult with an unknown vaccination history, such as a newly adopted dog or cat, he or she should essentially be treated as an unvaccinated pet. One rabies vaccination and two sets of each core vaccine generally will be recommended.

Why do vaccine schedules differ among clinics?
Depending on the veterinary clinic, certain vaccines might be recommended annually or every three years. While research exists to show that some core vaccines offer protection past their one-year booster, some veterinary practices still adhere to an annual vaccination schedule. Thus, it is not uncommon to find variation among clinics. It is best to keep your pet on a consistent schedule and defer to your veterinarian's recommendations.

Regardless of vaccine schedule, every pet should have a yearly wellness exam. Our pets age faster than we do, and regular veterinary check-ups are crucial for keeping optimum health and early detection of disease.

Should I be worried about vaccine reactions?
For commonly recommended vaccines, the risk of disease far outweighs the risk of any vaccine-associated complications. Most pets do not show signs of illness after a vaccine. Mild lethargy or itching in the area where the vaccine was given is common. In some cases, pets might have allergic reactions following vaccination. For this reason, it is best that owners schedule appointments when they are able to monitor their pet for 24 hours after vaccines are given.

Signs of a vaccine reaction can include vomiting, swelling of the face, difficulty breathing, lethargy or collapse. If your pet ever develops any of these signs following vaccination, seek immediate veterinary care. Generally, these types of reactions can be managed easily by your veterinarian. Pets that are known to have reactions can receive treatment before future vaccinations to minimize these responses.

When should my pet not receive vaccines?
There might be certain situations or medical conditions in which it is not safe for your pet to be vaccinated. If your pet is ever very ill, it is probably best to wait until he or she is healthy before receiving vaccines. The goal of any vaccination protocol is always to offer your pet the best protection for his or her health while minimizing the risk. Every case is unique, and vaccine requirements may vary over the course of your pet’s life as travel and other variables change. Always check with your veterinarian and defer to his or her recommendations.
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About The Author

Kristi Snyder, DVM Kristi Snyder, DVM
Kristi is a veterinarian and author of, a healthy living blog where she shares her passion for wellness and inspires others to live healthy, balanced lives. She lives in Phoenix with her three dogs (Eddy, Alan and Jelly Bean) and her cat Smush. She loves animals, cooking, running--and all things chocolate.

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