How Often Should My Dog Receive Vaccinations?

What Vaccinations Should My Dog Get?

Ron Hines DVM PhD

Times change. There is no need for you to read this article anymore. Instead:

Go to an update on which vaccines to give, how often and when  

You can also read about diseases that your dog needs to be protected against:

 Lyme disease 

Read about problems with too large a vaccine dose     

How Long Will It Be Before My Pet Is Protected?

It can take a full 14 days after vaccination before you should trust that your pet is fully protected. The vaccine itself does not protect your dog. Your pet must make antibodies of its own to the virus or bacterial product that was introduced by the vaccine. That is why vaccination just before boarding or exposure to a disease is a waste of time.

Does The Quality of Vaccines Differ?

Yes, products sold in feed stores are often of lower quality. When these stores sell Nationally respected brands, the products have been diverted from legitimate sales to veterinarians. In that case, there is always the risk that they may not have been shipped or stored properly. Many vaccines contain live, but weakened, disease organisms. Those organisms must be living to be effective. If vaccines are stored in areas that are too warm, or exposed to too much sunlight, they can lose their effectiveness.

Do We Give Our Pets Too Many Vaccines?


Just like children, puppies need vaccination at the proper time, or they will be susceptible to illnesses. But yearly vaccination for many diseases that affect dogs and cats is entirely too often. Please read an article on the subject regarding cats. (read here) The same facts about over-vaccination apply to dogs. We are just luck that dogs don’t get the number of vaccination-associated tumors that cats do.

The exceptions are vaccines against leptospirosis, which seem to only last a year and vaccination against kennel cough (which last six months to a year) and vaccinations against Lyme disease. When your pet is likely to be exposed to these pathogens, it will need booster vaccinations at regular intervals. However, injecting these foreign-protein containing products into your pet is not without risk, so you should consider how likely exposure really is in your pet’s specific case. Sometimes the risks out weight the possible benefits. Kennel cough is not a fatal disease. Leptospirosis usually requires exposure to stagnant standing water, wildlife (rats, raccoons, opossums, etc.) – so the risk to a pet like an indoor poodle is low, while the risk to a dog taken into rural settings is much higher. The risk to your pets also increases when you or your neighbors feed and attract large numbers of urban wildlife other than birds.

Some owners give their pets Lyme disease vaccine every year. Pets get this disease from ticks. If you are very fearful of catching it from your pet, that is a valid option. But my suggestion is that before you decide, see if there is actually a high incidence of Lyme disease in pets or wildlife where you live. You can view a map of the areas of the United States where your pet is most likely to be exposed to Lyme disease here. We know that Lyme vaccine has the potential of causing adverse effects including generalized arthritis, allergy and other immune diseases, so it should not be given needlessly.

Another commonly administered vaccine is for kennel cough (bordetella, etc.). This is usually a mild and transient disease – often contracted during boarding or grooming or at dog shows. Your pet may not need this vaccine since not all pets visit breeding or boarding kennels, most do not go to dog shows and most pets have only occasional contact with dogs outside their immediate family. Also, the immunity this vaccine imparts is quite short-lived. I recommend this vaccine only when owners anticipate a likely exposure. I suggest it more frequently in toy breeds in which coughing can persist for quite some time due to the narrow tracheas (windpipe) common in these breeds. These small pets also tend to spend more time at the groomer and kennels where kennel cough disease lurks.

What Are Adjuvants?

Adjuvants are compounds that are added to vaccines in an attempt to increase their effectiveness. I no longer use vaccines that contain them because they have caused so many side effects. Several companies offer a non-adjuvanted 3-year vaccines. This is the vaccine that I most often use in dogs. It appears to contain none of the adjuvants that might increase the chances of cancer or immunological disease later in life. I would prefer that your pet receive a rabies vaccine that also contains no adjuvants. But even non-adjuvanted injectable vaccines are not risk-free. If your dog has had prior vaccine reactions, think seriously before having any vaccines administered and be sure that your veterinarian jots down the brand name and lot number of the vaccines that have been given.

When Should My Puppy Get Its Shots?

1) At 12 weeks of age, have a low-volume (i.e. low traffic) animal hospital with a vet you trust or a mobile house call vet come to your home and give the pet the first of its 3 injections against the core diseases I mentioned earlier (I suggest that you never include leptospirosis in these initial vaccinations). Remember that veterinary waiting rooms, like ER waiting rooms, can be great places to catch the flu as well as to recover from it – don’t introduce your new pet to the rest of the crowd.

2) At 14 weeks of age, have your pet receive a booster vaccination with the same vaccine.

3) At 16-18 weeks have it repeated.

4) One year from then, have your pet receive a booster vaccination for its core diseases. In dogs and cats with normal immune systems, there is no need to repeat them for at least 7 years.

5) If you obtain a healthy adult pet with an unknown vaccination history, a single vaccination is sufficient.

I generally give the intranasal kennel cough (bordetella) vaccines at 12 and 18 weeks of age. At 12-16 weeks of age I give puppies a killed three-year rated rabies virus vaccination (such as Boehringer Ingelheim/Merial’s Imrab3®). 

Veterinary opinions differ on when to give these vaccinations. But my schedule has worked well for me and my clients. When I do see these diseases in puppies, it is generally because they were already incubating the diseases before their first vaccination.

What Vaccinations Should My Adult Pet Get?

With the exceptions I have mentioned (Kennel Cough, Leptospirosis, Lyme) adult dogs do not need to be vaccinated more than every 7 years.

Rabies is a special cases. The problem are state laws that mandate yearly rabies vaccination. You need to obey those laws for the benefit of the human and dog-population of your State as a whole. If States allowed exceptions, rabies could get out of control. Several rabies vaccines are federally certified for three years of protection. However, many states disregard these federal guidelines and require yearly vaccination. When yearly rabies vaccination is mandated, I prefer thiomersal-free, non-adjuvanted vaccine.

Until recently, veterinarians simply gave all dogs booster shots every year. This is what the vaccine manufacturers suggested. Besides, it brought our clientele back to our animal hospitals yearly, which increased our income and gave us the opportunity to detect problems early before the owners were aware of them. Most veterinarians do a thorough physical examination on pets at the time of their yearly vaccinations, and we often detect problems during the exam. Also, by law, many states require a yearly rabies vaccination even though studies have shown that many of the rabies vaccines we use give us three years of protection.

Many veterinarians, myself included, were suspicious that the vaccines we used were giving much longer periods of protection than one year. We knew this because we never saw distemper, hepatitis or parvovirus disease in dogs that had been vaccinated – even many years earlier.

Part of the problem involved the typical fee structures of veterinary practices. We tended to undercharge for complex surgery and subsidize those procedures with the money we earn on yearly vaccinations. I do not know how this practice came about, but it has existed at least since the 1950s. There was also an incentive for vaccine manufacturers to sell more vaccine if boosters were recommended annually. There was also a one-year mind set among the staff the USDA and FDA. It has been taken to the extreme, to the point where there is now a two-year expiration date on a vial of water.

There are many risks associated with too frequent vaccinations. For one, the immune system of your pet is stressed by these vaccinations. Occasional dogs develop allergic reactions, facial swelling, stomach and intestinal upsets, mopiness, fevers, itching, nausea and coughing after they receive a shot. But we also suspect that vaccinations trigger certain autoimmune diseases such as Addison’s disease in dogs.

Occasionally, these reactions are life-threatening (ref). Vaccines contain many ingredients besides the dried virus. Some of these, antibiotics and adjuvants (enhancers) are implicated in vaccine reactions. If I am suspicious that a dog might have a reaction to a particular vaccine, I pre-administer antihistamines (Benadryl™) and give a minute test dose of 0.05 ml. If the dog is normal thirty minutes after the test dose, I give it the remaining one milliliter. However, even this small test dose has caused reactions in some animals.

Newer Information

A study tracked the length of time vaccination immunity (immunological memory) persisted in humans. We know that the immune system’s memory in all mammals, cats-dogs-and-people is very similar. (read here) Measles, for example, is a virus very much like distemper of dogs. (read here) The immunity conferred by a two-dose series measles vaccine lasts a human lifetime. Vaccina (cow pox), mumps, Epstein-Barr virus, varicella/zoster and rubella also last a lifetime; tetanus 11, years, diphtheria 19 yrs. So, although no studies have followed dogs or cats that long, veterinarians have no reason to doubt that their immunity would be shorter lasting.

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