Vaccinations: Should you or shouldn’t you? |

Vaccinations: Should you or shouldn’t you?

Vet giving dog injection
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There’s a major controversy brewing, and it has a lot of people on both sides of the issue pretty hot and bothered.

No, I’m not talking about whether to hang toilet paper to roll from the top or the bottom … or the debate over plastic versus paper bags … or even the correct pronunciation of the word “pajama.”

I’m referring to the argument over vaccinations for your dog.

While there’s little dispute over vaccines such as rabies, which is very literally a matter of life-and-death, there’s a wide range of opinion over the timing of vaccinations — how often they should be given, or whether some should be given at all.

First off, let me say that there are no right or wrong answers. By and large, the decision about vaccinating your dog is a personal one best decided after discussion with your veterinarian.

I’m neither inclined nor qualified to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do. Rather, I’m hoping to simply provide information to help you make the best choice for you and your dog.

So let’s take a look at what vaccines are. Stated simply, a vaccine is a substance that contains antigens, which the immune system gets tricked into thinking are actual disease-causing organisms, except they aren’t.

These antigens stimulate the immune system to react to a certain disease by either fighting it off or reducing its severity if the animal is ever exposed to the actual illness.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) divides canine vaccinations into three categories: core, non-core and not recommended.

Core vaccines are those that pose a severe health risk, and are considered essential for all dogs: parvovirus (parvo), distemper, canine adenovirus (which causes infectious hepatitis), and rabies. (Rabies is the only vaccine required by law to be given to all dogs.).

The list of non-core vaccines is lengthy, and varies from one region to another. For instance, here in Nevada County many vets consider the vaccines against Lyme disease, leptospirosis, bortadella/kennel cough, and rattlesnakes as essential, whereas in the Midwest the risk of Lyme disease is extremely low and few pet health professionals would suggest vaccinating your dog against it.

What about non-recommended vaccines? Here’s what the AAHA says: “Just because (our) guidelines place a vaccine in ‘Not Recommended’ status does NOT mean that its administration is … harmful.”

If your vet suggests your dog have a core or non-core vaccine, there could be an excellent reason.

Perhaps there’s a recent epidemic of an illness in your region, or perhaps you’re taking your pet to an area where this disease is prevalent. Again, I suggest you follow your veterinarian’s advice.

So, can your dog suffer ill effects as a result of being vaccinated? This is without doubt the greatest point of contention between not just pet owners but animal health professionals as well. The short answer is yes, adverse reactions can and do happen.

The question is whether the risk outweighs the benefit, and that’s something that only you and your veterinarian can decide.

It’s a little like trying to decide whether to fly or drive to New York: Either decision involves both risk (plane crash versus car crash) and benefit (getting there in a few hours versus the days it would take to get there by car).

Again, the list of potential adverse reactions your dog could have (and note the word “could”) is far too long to list here, but some of the more common include injection-site reactions such as pain, swelling, and hair loss; temporary effects like fever and lethargy; and true allergic reactions, which can range from mild and temporary to life-threatening.

Now let’s take a look at the issue of overvaccinating, one of the other major concerns many pet owners have. Decades ago, experts said our dogs should be vaccinated annually, no matter what.

Today, however, there’s a much clearer understanding of how vaccines work, which has led to a more careful analysis of how often we need to vaccinate, and why.

Now we understand that canine vaccines don’t “wear off” or become ineffective according to a certain timetable. Every dog and every situation is different.

That begs the question: how do you know when your dog is protected, and when he isn’t? One possible answer is embodied in something called the vaccine titer test.

Remember, when we vaccinate a dog, his immune system produces antigens to that specific disease. A vaccine titer test simply measures the amount of antibodies to that disease circulating in the dog’s blood.

A positive titer test indicates that your dog is adequately immunized against the disease for which the test is measuring. A negative titer, on the other hand, generally means that your dog has no or very limited immunity.

A word of caution, however: vaccine titer tests are just as controversial as vaccines themselves, partly because they’re not always conclusive, and also because they’re costly.

My advice is to educate yourself, talk with your veterinarian, and consider writer Ruth Benedict’s words: “It isn’t that there is no answer, but that there are so many answers!”

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Casey (hence, “Casey’s Corner”). You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue.

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