Golden retriever getting a vaccine

Negative reactions to dog vaccines are uncommon.

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Are yearly vaccinations for dogs necessary?

By Dr Holly Graham BVMedSci BVMBVS MRCVS Veterinarian

Updated on the

They’ve had their puppy vaccinations and your new family member has settled in. A year later, you’re called for booster jabs. But with a healthy pup, are yearly vaccines for dogs really necessary?

No pet owner wants their cute little pooch to get sick with a disease, especially one that is easily preventable with a simple vaccination. Many of the diseases vets vaccinate for can be fatal for our furry friends, so it makes sense to protect your dog. But are booster vaccinations actually necessary every year?

There are lots of different opinions about vaccinations online and, while you might read scary tales, vaccines are generally incredibly safe. Negative reactions to vaccines are uncommon. While it's always best to speak to a vet who can advise personally about your dog, in this article the most common questions about vaccinations for dogs will be explained to help you make an educated choice.

What’s the purpose of yearly vaccines for dogs?

Lots of new puppies come home to you for the first time having already started their vaccinations with their breeder or rescue centre. It's likely you had to take them for a second or third vaccination with a vet before they were allowed out to enjoy the great outdoors. But now what? It’s a year later and the vet has contacted you to say it's time for your pup's annual booster... but what is a booster? And why is this so important?

Vaccinations are used to stimulate immunity to contagious diseases – these may be passed from dog to dog directly, or can be picked up from the environment. Unfortunately the immunity your dog gained from their puppy vaccines doesn't last for the whole of their life. The booster vaccine gives them a top up of this immunity, and helps to protect them from these potentially fatal diseases. If the protective antibody levels present in your dog's body aren't boosted annually, they are at higher risk of succumbing to these sometimes deadly diseases.

Are yearly vaccines for dogs really necessary?

Annual vaccines for dogs are a heavily debated subject. There are many horror stories online regarding vaccinations, but negative reactions to vaccines are few and far between. A vet is the best person to advise on vaccinating your dog, as they have access to their medical history. Provided your dog is fit and healthy, it's unlikely that you'd see any negative effects of the vaccine – usually the trip to the vets is the worst part. The risks of contracting a disease that could seriously harm or even kill your dog far outweigh the risks associated with vaccinations.

There's lots of talk regarding whether annual jabs are necessary, and that the protective cover vaccines offer may last more than the 12 months advised. Most vets have changed the way they vaccinate dogs and only vaccinate for certain diseases every three years based on the scientific evidence of how long this immunity may last. Titre testing is available as an alternative to annual vaccines for some diseases, but not all. This test checks your dog’s antibody levels, and if they are adequate they may not need the vaccination. However if these levels are lower than the protective amount, a booster will be needed. Certain vaccinations, for example that for leptospirosis, are still required annually as the evidence suggests that the protection a booster vaccination offers doesn't last more than 12 months, and titre testing doesn't work for this disease.

Vets and vaccination manufacturers have tried to reduce the intensity of vaccine regimes, and will be happy to discuss any safety or requirement concerns you might have. The vet will be able to discuss your options for vaccination, based on your dog's individual needs and their experiences of vaccination. Hopefully from that, you will be able to make an informed decision for your pet.

Why should you regularly vaccinate your dog?

Regular vaccinations help to prevent your dog becoming infected with potentially fatal conditions. The diseases vets vaccinate for are common in areas with a high population of dogs, and which therefore spread quickly between individuals. These diseases are often incredibly difficult to treat, and require long times spent in the veterinary hospital while vets try to save your pup. Unvaccinated dogs have a high potential to spread these diseases through whole populations – your friends, families or neighbours pets could easily be affected. So keeping your dog up to date with their vaccines protects other animals in the community, too.

Vaccinations are vigorously and continuously tested for safety and efficacy, and owners’ safety concerns are reported to vaccine manufacturers if there are any adverse effects. These vaccines are safe, effective and much cheaper than treating your poorly pet.

What are the side effects and risks of yearly vaccines for dogs?

The benefits of booster vaccinations, whether annual or three yearly as required, are clear, but it's important to discuss the risks and potential side effects too.

Vaccine reactions are rare. The vast majority of patients given a vaccine show no side effects, with the ride to the veterinary practice often being the most stressful part of the vaccine. The most common side effects seen are tiredness or fatigue, inappetence, lethargy and just generally being not one hundred per cent. Most animals don't require treatment for this, and are back to normal a day or two later. Sometimes swellings, redness or infection can be seen at the site of injection, but again this isn't a common problem.

In extremely rare cases there can be an extreme adverse reaction to the vaccination. This is an anaphylactic reaction and this will usually occur within the first hour following the injection. While the chances of this happening are extremely slim, if you notice your pup isn't right shortly after the vaccine, it's best to contact the vet for advice.

Most veterinarians agree that the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.

Does my dog need annual vaccinations in the UK?

Vaccinations are recommended for most dogs in the UK. Most puppies in the UK begin their vaccinations between eight and 12 weeks of age, and vets advise keeping a dog’s booster vaccinations up to date. The UK has a large population of dogs, most of whom are vaccinated, which helps to keep others in the community safe. Unfortunately even with this, vets still see lots of cases of disease that are preventable with vaccinations. If your dog isn't vaccinated, they could be at risk of catching something deadly.

Most vets in the UK follow the guidelines from the WSAVA, who help them to create the safest vaccination protocols for you and your pet. Leptospirosis vaccines are still recommended annually, but boosters for distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus are usually now only every three years, unless you live in an area where these diseases are endemic. Cases of some of these conditions aren't common, but when these diseases are contracted they are life-threatening, and some diseases i.e. leptospirosis can even be spread to humans.

Which dog vaccines are absolutely necessary?

Vaccines that are necessary in the UK cover the diseases leptospirosis, distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus. Lepto vaccines are still annual, but in most areas of the UK the 'DHP' component is only given every three years. Due to the high uptake of vaccination, these diseases are seen less commonly than before, but are still found in dog populations throughout the UK.

The vet may offer vaccinations for kennel cough, and while these are generally recommended many people decline this vaccination. It isn't considered part of the core vaccines, but for dogs who like to play with their friends or who are regularly kenneled, it's worth considering. Kennel cough is usually a less severe disease but, if infection is severe and persistent, it can make your dog very poorly. Speak to a vet about which vaccinations they would recommend for your dog, given the area you live in.

What happens if your dog is not vaccinated?

The risks of contracting a life-threatening disease are much higher if your dog hasn't had their vaccines. While vaccination of other dogs in the community offers some level of herd immunity, your dog may not be able to fight off an infection picked up from outside (or even brought into the home). Dogs who contract these diseases often require long stays in the hospital, and unfortunately many do not make it home to their families.

If your dog isn't vaccinated, or has missed some of their boosters, it's easy to get them protected. Adult dogs who've missed vaccinations, or who have never been vaccinated before, usually need two vaccines a few weeks apart. Then they can get back to just the one vet trip a year for a booster. Puppies should be vaccinated shortly after coming home to you, and shouldn't be taken for walks or to meet other dogs until they've had all their vaccinations.

Is it illegal to not vaccinate your dog in the UK?

It isn't illegal not to vaccinate your dog and there aren't any laws to say that your dog must be vaccinated. If you have concerns as to whether or not to do this, it's best to have a conversation with a vet, who can help you weigh up the pros and cons of vaccination.

Do indoor dogs need vaccinations?

Even indoor dogs are at risk of infection with deadly diseases. Some of the viruses that vets vaccinate for don't need dog-to-dog contact, and can be brought into the house on clothes, shoes or inanimate objects. An indoor dog may have a different vaccination schedule to a dog who goes outside, but indoor dogs still require some protection with vaccination.

When should I talk to a vet?

Vaccinations can be complicated and they might seem scary if you've spent hours researching them on the internet. There are lots of differing opinions and it can be difficult to wade through these and make your own opinion. Vets are there to help, listen to your concerns and assist you in making decisions for your pet’s health. If you're worried about whether it's safe to vaccinate your dog, or want to start your dog's vaccinations, give a veterinarian a call to see how they can help.

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