Does this sound familiar? It’s about a month before your pet’s annual checkup at the vet’s office, and you’re suddenly inundated with notices about all the different shots Bella is due to receive…If so, you’ve likely wondered, “how often do cats and dogs really need vaccines…every year or not?”
After all, humans don’t get vaccinated each year against anything except the flu…For example, we get the polio and MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines about four to five times in early childhood, and are then considered to be protected against these diseases. Why would immunity be so different for our pets?
To uncover the latest thinking on pet vaccines, I consulted with a holistic veterinarian in Connecticut – Stephen Tobin, DVM and an integrative veterinarian in California – Emily Wilkinson, DVM, as well as UC Davis veterinary hospital vaccination guidelines and 2017 American Animal Hospital Association guidelines.
As an integrative cardiologist, it was especially important for me to consult with holistic and integrative veterinarians, as they also believe in minimally invasive care that is focused on nutrition, well-being and stress-reduction, as well as disease prevention.
Here, we’ll break down which shots pets generally need and when, as well as other ways to keep them healthy naturally, from puppy- and kitten-hood to well into old age. Given all the joy my own dogs brought to my life, I want to help all pets live their healthiest for as long as possible!
Which Dog and Cat Vaccines Are Necessary?
Vaccines for dogs and cats can be split into two categories – core and non-core. Core pet vaccines like rabies and distemper are non-negotiable, and protect pets against deadly, painful infections with no known cures. Non-core pet shots are those that protect against infections that aren’t likely to be life-threatening for animals with healthy immune systems, such as the flu or lyme disease, so recommendations may vary depending on geographical area or your vet’s care philosophy.
As for how often to administer pet vaccines, the recommended schedule is, according to Dr. Tobin, “a political compromise” between those in favor of yearly boosters, and those who don’t believe additional shots, or boosters, are needed after the initial series.
Core Dog and Cat Vaccines – Rabies and Distemper
First and foremost, the rabies vaccine for dogs is of utmost importance. In most U.S. states, it’s required by law in the interest of public health. As far as how often dogs need rabies shots, it’s on a regular schedule starting at 12 weeks (or immediately for older dogs with an unknown vaccine history). The second dose is given one year later and then booster doses are given every three years thereafter.
The distemper vaccine, or dhpp vaccine, is also a core vaccine for dogs and cats. As a child, I witnessed firsthand the damage distemper inflicts on a dog. The degree of suffering the animal goes through is heartbreaking – typically the disease is fatal, but on the slim chance it’s not, animals that survive can have permanent nervous system damage.
Not all authorities agree on the timing of the distemper shot. Both the UC Davis and AAHA guidelines say that dhpp vaccines can start as soon as six weeks old, but Drs. Tobin and Wilkinson agree that starting vaccines later reduces the number of shots your pet has to receive. This is because the young animal’s emerging immune system still has maternal antibodies circulating which may interfere with its own antibody production. For this reason, Dr. Tobin recommends waiting until at least 10 weeks of age for puppies and kittens to receive the dhpp vaccine to avoid having to get boosters every 1 to 3 years thereafter.
Non-Core Dog and Cat Vaccines – Leptospirosis, Bordetella, Lyme, Canine Influenza, Crotalis, Coronavirus
Vaccines like the six listed above fall into the non-core category, so are considered optional based on geographical location, vet philosophy or institutional requirements. For example, some kennels or doggie day-care facilities may require the bordetella vaccine for kennel cough (infectious tracheobronchitis), but if your dog mainly stays at home you could easily opt out.
Not surprisingly, opinions among experts on non-core vaccine efficacy vary. While the UC Davis guidelines list the leptospirosis vaccine as part of core vaccines for dogs in California, Dr. Tobin in Connecticut says doing so has little-to-no benefit. This is because vaccines are most effective against viruses, says Tobin, and therefore do not adequately protect against bacterial diseases like leptospirosis, lyme, and kennel cough. And although the UC Davis guidelines do not recommend the crotalis vaccination against rattlesnake bites, Dr. Wilkinson in California regularly provides it due to high exposure and limited emergency services in her remote area.
Non-core vaccination choices really depend on your pet’s specific risk exposure and overall health in conjunction with the care philosophy of you and your vet. Just as with humans, the importance of individualized care plans is so important to determine the best approach.
Tips For Safer Pet Vaccinations
As I am with humans, I’m also wary of over-vaccinating pets and giving too many vaccines at once since they can contain neurotoxins, formaldehyde, antibiotics and allergens. Although severe adverse reactions to vaccines are rare, there are tips you can follow to reduce the chances of disease or health problems developing in your dog or cat.
For all non-core vaccines, Dr. Wilkinson always recommends giving them later than core vaccines, especially for small patients: “All of the vaccine dosages are usually 1 ml in size, whether they are given to a 5 lb. toy poodle or a 150 lb. mastiff. A large dog can handle three or four vaccines at one time, no problem, but a small dog is much more likely to react.” She advises waiting three weeks between doses to allow the immune system to fully recover between injections.
Another tip to reduce the chance of health problems down the line is to follow the natural route of infection when vaccinating, according to Dr. Tobin. For rabies this is an injection, for feline distemper and herpes it should be intranasal and oral. In his experience, he’s seen health problems develop later on in animals when this rule isn’t followed. Specifically in the case of an injectable feline distemper vaccine, he’s observed it encourages hyperthyroidism when the cat is around 10 years old and often leads to kidney disease in older cats, since the virus is grown on feline kidney tissue.
How To Boost Pets’ Immunity Naturally
For vaccines that prevent against illnesses that aren’t typically life-threatening such as the flu, I like to follow the same vaccine philosophy for pets as I do for humans: unless you’re elderly, have underlying illnesses or a compromised immune system, you’re better off bolstering your immune system naturally with healthy food choices, adequate sleep, targeted nutritional supplements, stress management, and an active lifestyle.
A Consistently Healthy Diet Is Their Best Defense
Just as with humans, the quality (and quantity) of nutrients pets eat makes a world of difference in how well their bodies function. Let’s talk about a few key food nutrients pets should be getting to keep them healthy and better able to fend off illness, as well as some supplemental vitamins and antioxidants that help them live their healthiest lives well into old age.
Omega-3s, fatty acids typically found in marine animals and certain plants, have wonderful anti-inflammatory properties and help promote healthy skin and coats. But they’re hard to come by in a bag of cat or dog food! To make sure your pet’s getting enough, feed cats or dogs sardines packed in water or add some flaxseed or walnut oil to dogs’ food. You can also opt to give your pet an omega-3 supplement – dogs can take plant or animal-derived versions, but make sure cats receive a fish-based supplement as plant-based omegas won’t work for them.
Nutrient-dense organ meats are so important for your pet’s diet since they’re rich in B vitamins, Vitamin A and Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), which is critical for cellular energy production. To make sure your pet is getting enough organ meat nutrition, you can bake beef liver in the oven then cut it into pieces. If you’re squeamish or short on time, an easier option is to give your pet freeze-dried treats made of raw organ meats – opt for antibiotic and hormone-free treats like these turkey heart and bison liver treats. With middle-aged and older pets, you can also add Coenzyme Q10 pet drops to their food for added support.
Probiotics work to balance gut bacteria in humans, and the same is true for dogs and cats! Probiotic supplements for pets aid in healthier digestion, better food nutrient absorption and fewer GI issues like diarrhea and constipation, among other benefits. Make sure to choose one with the widest variety of strains that also contains prebiotics so your pet gets the maximum benefit. For cats, you can choose to feed plain, unsweetened yogurt with as many strains as possible.
By combining holistic practices, like whole-body care and optimal nutrition with up-to-date thinking on vaccines for dogs and cats, you’ll help your pet stay healthy no matter what stage of life they’re in. Here’s to a long, happy life and aging gracefully!
- UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. Vaccination Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. Vetmd.UCDavis.edu, last accessed July 23, 2019.
- Ford R, et al. 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. AAHA.org, Oct. 2017.
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). What Is Holistic Veterinary Medicine? Ahvma.org, last accessed July 23, 2019.
- American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AHVMA). Canine Distemper. Ahvma.org, last accessed July 23, 2019.
© 2019 Stephen Sinatra MD. All rights reserved.