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Dog vaccinations

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When it comes to your dog's health, the single most important thing you can do for your pet is make sure she gets her shots. Many of the most dangerous and infectious canine diseases we know of can be easily prevented with safe and effective vaccines.

Vaccine schedules

It would be nice if all of these vaccinations could be handled with a single, quick injection right after the puppy is born. Alas, it's not that easy. Puppies, like human babies, receive some immunity while still in the womb, and others with first milk. Unlike in humans, however, that immunity fades in the puppy very quickly, during the first few weeks of life. That's why vaccines have to take over.

As is so often true, timing is everything. Only a veterinarian armed with your dog's complete medical history can determine which vaccines should be given and when they'll be most effective. In general, however, shots begin when your dog is four to six weeks old and will continue until she's more than 16 weeks of age. Many of the most important vaccines can be given together, in what's often called the DHLPP vaccine. Some, like leptospirosis and rabies, require annual boosters that will be a routine part of a checkup.

Diseases that can be prevented with vaccines

  • Rabies is a potentially deadly and highly contagious disease, dangerous to humans as well as dogs. Though it's rare in North America and the canine-specific version has recently been eradicated from the U.S., rabies is still a vicious malady that infects many mammals in the wild — and they can bite and infect your unvaccinated dog. Your puppy's first vaccination will come when she is three to four months old; annual boosters are required.
  • Canine distemper was a major killer of canines in the past; now it is common only in rescue shelters and pet stores. But it's still widely seen in the wild, so it is always a risk. Distemper is devastating disease that can wreck a dog's health, especially its nervous system. A potentially fatal virus, it most often seen in young dogs — though it can occur at any age. It is the "D" in the DHLPP vaccine, which is usually given six to eight weeks after birth.
  • Canine parvovirus is one of the most common and hardest-to-kill viruses in the world, and every species has its unique version. Eighty percent fatal, it is a tough virus that can survive on objects, such as furniture, for some time. And it can kill in a matter of days. Maternal antibodies interfere with the vaccine's effectiveness early on, and there's often a window of vulnerability, different for every puppy, that falls between the end of the period of genetic immunity and the beginning of the vaccine's protection. Only a vet can determine how early and how often your dog may need this vaccine.
  • Canine leptospirosis is actually a bacterium — a spirochete, if you want to get technical about it — that can infect humans as well as dogs. The spiral-shaped parasite replicates in various organs and interferes with proper function; when it's in full bloom, it can cause chronic kidney and liver failure and even death. An annual booster is necessary, and, in some high-risk regions, a booster every six months is required. Check with your vet about how often your dog should receive this vaccine. (This is the "L" in the DHLPP injection.)
  • Canine adenovirus/Viral hepatitis is a blood disease that adversely affects the liver. Initially, the virus affects the tonsils and larynx, causing a sore throat, coughing, and occasionally pneumonia. As it enters the bloodstream, it can affect the eyes, liver, and kidneys. The cornea — the clear portion of the eyes — can appear cloudy or bluish, a condition that vets call "hepatitis blue eye." As serious as it is, canine adenovirus shouldn't be confused with human hepatitis. This particular bug can't pass to human beings. It is the "H" in DHLPP and requires yearly boosters.
  • Canine parainfluenza is another respiratory tract infection that's highly contagious but relatively mild and self-limiting (usually five to 10 days). Usually transmitted by the nasal secretions of infected dogs, it can produce a persistent cough and lead to even more persistent bronchitis. Though it's not terribly dangerous in itself, parainfluenza can open the door to other opportunistic infections and respiratory problems; that's why the vaccine is a standard part of the DHLPP vaccine (the last "P").
  • Infectious tracheobronchitis ("Kennel cough") is a complex of viruses that can cause a harsh, hacking cough, sounding very much like a chest cold in humans. It is most commonly spread in kennels or other group situations, and is only a serious condition if your dog is very old, very young, or has an immune system that is already compromised by other illnesses or parasites. It usually resolves itself on its own, but it can be avoided entirely with regular vaccinations. Many kennels or boarding facilities require a current immunization before they'll let your dog in the door.
  • Canine coronavirus is almost as prevalent as parvo, and nearly as dangerous. Its effects can range from the equivalent of a bad flu to terminal illness. Most veterinarians now include it in their vaccination programs, giving it in tandem with the DHLPP vaccine (sometimes you'll see it referred to as "DHLPP+C").

When it's time to see a vet

There are a number of do-it-yourself vaccinations kits available these days, and they're tempting: it's both expensive and inconvenient to take your dogs (especially puppies) in for their shots. However, there are real advantages to relying on your veterinarian for the whole vaccine process. Your regular vet will:

  • Gather a full medical history before the first vaccination, which can come in handy during future treatments.
  • Give your dog a full medical exam prior to the injections.
  • Make recommendations about how often boosters might be needed, given your dog's individual history and regional concerns.
  • Keep track of the future timetable for vaccine follow-ups and boosters.
  • Provide the paperwork you'll need to board your dog or enter her in competitions.

Are the vaccines safe?

There can be some side effects — joint or muscle soreness, lethargy, or a mild fever can linger for a day or two. These reactions aren't serious, and your dog can eat, drink, and exercise normally after vaccination.

There is some controversy about the advisability and long-term effects of annual shots; some experts and advocates say that the annual shots are unnecessary (that the immunities from the original vaccine last a lifetime, as most do in humans) and may even result in dangerous allergic reactions in a small percentage of dogs. But most experienced veterinarians feel strongly that annual boosters have benefits that far outweigh the risks.

Additional information on vaccinations and your dog's heath:

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