Immunizations, or vaccines, are one of the greatest medical discoveries – they fundamentally changed modern medicine. Starting with the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century, vaccines continue to be developed for both human and animal health. The rabies vaccine, developed by Louis Pasteur, was first given to dogs in 1881 and then in 1885 to a child who had been infected with rabies—the child is the first known survivor of a rabies infection. Vaccines play a crucial role in preventive medicine to protect both people and animals from the risk of serious and sometimes fatal diseases.
A vaccine is a preparation that helps the body’s immune system get ready to fight disease-causing organisms. If the immune system is exposed to an unfamiliar microbe (bacteria or virus) as part of a vaccine, it will produce antibodies that will be ready to fight if it is exposed to the same microbe again. Antibodies are what help the body fight infection and protect it from getting the same illness again. Vaccinations are intended to reduce the severity of the illness or prevent the disease entirely by creating immunity.
Vaccines have improved the lives of dogs and cats around the world and have played an important role in public safety. While veterinary vaccination programs have not yet eliminated diseases (as is the case for humans with smallpox), vaccines for rabies, distemper, parvovirus, feline leukemia, and panleukopenia have greatly reduced the incidence of their respective diseases.
The greatest achievement with the vaccination of companion animals is the reduction of canine distemper—a contagious, serious, and often fatal disease of dogs—in areas where vaccines are used. Another great achievement is the virtual elimination of rabies in people caused by dogs (dog-mediated) in Canada, the United States, Western Europe, Japan, and 28 of the 35 Latin American countries. This has been attributed to mandatory rabies vaccination of dogs in these areas. Rabies is, however, still widespread in many developing countries around the world. Even though rabies is preventable, it kills about 59,000 people each year. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths are caused by dog bites and nearly half of the victims are children. United Against Rabies, a four-way partnership between the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the Global Alliance for Rabies Control, has set a goal to eliminate dog-mediated rabies by the year 2030.
The vaccines that are recommended for dogs and cats vary according to geographical location and lifestyle. Some vaccines are “core,” that is, they are recommended for all dogs or cats, while others are recommended depending on certain risk factors (e.g., geography, exposure to other animals, travel, etc.).
Core vaccines for dogs:
- Canine distemper virus
- Canine adenovirus-2 (canine hepatitis)
- Canine parvovirus
- Rabies virus
Non-core vaccines for dogs in special circumstances:
- Bordetella bronchiseptica + canine parainfluenza virus (kennel cough)
- Borrelia burgdorferi or Lyme disease
- Canine influenza (H3N8 and H3N2)
- Crotalus atrox (Western Diamondback Rattlesnake)
Core vaccines for cats:
- Feline panleukopenia virus (FPL) (also known as feline infectious enteritis or feline distemper)
- Feline viral rhinotracheitis (also known as herpes virus-1 or FHV-1)
- Feline calicivirus
- Rabies virus (required by law in certain areas)
Non-core vaccines for cats in special circumstances:
- Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) (considered core in kittens and cats one year of age)
- Bordetella bronchiseptica
- Chlamydophila felis
- Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) (not generally recommended)
The COVID-19 lockdowns disrupted many pets’ vaccine schedules as clinics had to close or operate on an emergency-only basis. Now that we are getting back to ‘normal’, you should contact your veterinary clinic to find out if your pet is behind on any immunizations and, if so, schedule an appointment to get back on track.