To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate? The Answer Is Not So Simple.

Only one vaccine is required by law. As for others, know the pros and cons, and tailor a health plan for your pet with your veterinarian.

Should I vaccinate my dog?

I must be nuts to tackle this subject. It is so controversial. But I think it’s important for people with pets to be educated on the subject and to know that you, as a pet guardian, have many options.

Why do some people believe the veterinary profession has been guilty of “over-vaccinating” in the past? Most probably because this was true. But safe vaccinations and vaccination protocols for your cats and dogs do not have a very long history when you think about it, and vaccine protocols are always evolving and changing depending on changing diseases and the pet population.

Think about vaccines in 3 categories:

  1. Rabies vaccine. The only vaccine required by law. There is a zoonotic potential, meaning humans can contract rabies from animals and the disease is fatal.
  2. Core vaccines. These include canine distemper, feline distemper (panleukopenia) and canine parvovirus. These diseases are extremely serious or fatal and are endemic (everywhere).
  3. Non-core vaccines. These vaccines include canine Lyme, canine bordetella and feline leukemia, for example. Many factors go into deciding whether your animal needs non-core vaccines based on where you live, the animal’s lifestyle, etc.


I recommend that you follow your state’s regulations on rabies vaccination. It’s the law. Rabies vaccines are very safe, inexpensive and given infrequently if you follow the guidelines. If your animal is bitten or bites someone and is not up-to-date on rabies, your animal will be placed under quarantine.

Just recently in my bucolic town of Amherst, Mass., there lived a happy sheep on the common ground of a communal living housing development. A friend of mine thought the sheep was doing some strange wandering, so she helped it with its feed and water buckets. Next day, Mary’s little lamb was salivating, circling and, you guessed it, dead from rabies.

Everyone in the community who had come into any contact with said sheep had to get rabies vaccines. This example is to remind us that rabies is out there!

As the animal inspector in my town, I was perturbed a few years ago when the police brought me a dead raccoon late at night. Rocky had apparently been bothering a neighbor, so the police shot him and brought him to me.

Because there had been potential human contact, I was required to cut off his head and get it to the state ASAP. This being my first raccoon decapitation, I found it a bit more difficult than first anticipated. I cut myself with the blood-laden scalpel trying to cut through that last vertebrae.

Wouldn’t you know poor Rocky had been bothering that neighbor because he was rabid! I couldn’t believe it when the state report came back the next day. Luckily, I have pre-exposure rabies vaccinations, but this stupid accident on my part did require that I go to an after-hours facility and receive a post-exposure rabies booster.

I was reminded that vaccines serve a wonderful purpose. It brought back the unpleasant memory of the video we were required to watch in vet school of a person dying of rabies. This made the lasting impression that rabies is still around and is fatal.

Core Vaccines

Should I vaccinate my cat?
Should I vaccinate my cat?

What about the basic canine and feline vaccinations your veterinarian might recommend that your pet get every few years? We used to recommend these be given annually, and now we recommend they be given approximately every 3 years.

Why the change? Vaccination protocols were set in the late 1940s and ’50s to vaccinate yearly for fatal diseases like distemper.

Studies showed that one-third of puppies were not protected after a year, so the yearly protocol was instituted. The vaccine was less expensive to give than trying to test titres to see if the pet was still protected, so annual vaccination became the standard of care.

Over the next 40 years, vaccination became widespread and the diseases became controlled. It has become obvious that less vaccination is sufficient for adequate protection.

You may ask your veterinarian to run titres that are available for certain diseases like distemper and parvo if you want to give the fewest vaccinations possible. A titre is a blood test that determines whether your animal is still protected by a previous vaccine.

Non-Core Vaccines

Many veterinary vaccines on the market don’t have to be given to animals who are not at specific risk.

A simple example is the bordetella, or “kennel cough” vaccine for dogs. Only dogs who board in a kennel facility are required to have this vaccine.

That being said, your dog can contract bordetella on the street, in a dog park, in the veterinarian’s office, etc. The risk is simply higher in a kennel where there are lots of dogs under one roof. Talk to your vet and decide if your dog should get this protection based on potential exposure.

Holistic or Traditional Medicine

Some veterinarians and pet owners who take a completely homeopathic or holistic approach to medicine think vaccines lower your pet’s immune system or cause disease.

They advocate giving very few or no vaccines at all. Traditional medicine advocates that vaccines be given to ensure that an animal is protected against serious and fatal diseases, taking into account the potential risks of vaccination.

Many of you have probably experienced a time when your pet was lethargic, even possibly running a low-grade fever after a vaccination. Occasionally, a pet has a true anaphylactic reaction and the face or body swells, hives develop, etc.

These are considered vaccine reactions and must be readily dealt with. This is different from the concerns of holistic medicine, where the belief is vaccination can do continual harm to the pet’s overall health.

Herd Immunity

Herd immunity is a level of immunity when a significant amount of a population is vaccinated to protect the entire population. This applies to animals and humans.

If enough of the population is not vaccinated, vaccine-preventable diseases will begin to occur, as has happened with childhood diseases because of parents who decline vaccination. In 2009 we saw a rise in measles, mumps and pertussis (whooping cough) because too many children were not vaccinated.

In the late 1980s, when I was still in vet school, the University of Pennsylvania had a “Parvo Ward,” populated with pathetic dying puppies and dogs. Loaded up with IVs and monitors, medications being pumped into their little bodies, they suffered for days and often died.

Many clients could not afford the treatment. Now parvo is happily a rare disease. But when pet owners decide that vaccination is not essential, the overall population is at greater risk and more cases are seen.

Both parvo and distemper are rarely seen in the vaccinated population today. But these diseases are not eradicated. In areas of the country where dogs and cats are unvaccinated and the conditions are right for transmission (usually warmer climates), these deadly diseases are still seen regularly.

Educate Yourself

As a responsible pet guardian, you should think of your approach to vaccination as holistic but not selfish. Consider the overall health of your pet, plus the risk factors, and go from there.

Discuss vaccine protocols with your veterinarian. Vaccine clinics or going to a mega pet store for vaccines may not be helping you or saving you money in the long run.

Whenever I see a receipt from clients who went to a vaccine clinic or corporate veterinarian for their vaccines, I believe they have often paid for unnecessary vaccines. If the veterinarian has not discussed “core” versus other vaccines with you, he or she has done you a disservice.

Don’t buy “bundled” vaccines. Vaccinations should not be picked from a shopping list. You need to discuss pros and cons and tailor a health plan for your pet with your vet. You’re not going to be able to do this in a vaccine line at a Luv-My-Pup-Pup, where they do not love your pup — they love your money.

Take the Lyme vaccine, for example, one of the most controversial vaccines. Lyme is not a big problem in some parts of the country, and the vaccine is not 100% protective. So why would you get your maltese who lives in a non-endemic area and spends 80% of its time in an air-conditioned room a Lyme vaccine?

But maybe you have a Labrador in the Northeast, an endemic Lyme area. Buddy the Lab gets covered with ticks 10 months out of the year, and spends 90% of his time running with deer and mice. I think a sincere discussion about the pros and cons of Lyme vaccination is appropriate.

What about the feline leukemia vaccine? I have many cat owners who want to do the best for their cat. The scenario: Mrs. A-Plus has Fifi, who sleeps in the bed and never goes out, and Dodo, who spends 75% of his time “catting” around and comes home for meals.

Fifi thinks Dodo is an idiot and never gives him the time of day. Mrs. A+ wants to vaccinate Fifi for leukemia because of the intensely low possibility that she might contract feline leukemia from Dodo. This is a case where there is no right or wrong answer. But I should have a clear and honest discussion with Mrs. A+ about the danger/safety of the leukemia vaccine, the risks involved, her peace of mind and the necessity for that cat to be vaccinated. Mrs. A+ can then make her own educated decision.

Another example is the rabies vaccination for cats. The older vaccine has a small risk of causing a tumor at the site of the injection. It is labeled for a 3-year duration in many states. The newer vaccine has no chance of causing the vaccine-associated tumor but it is labeled only for one year.

Some clients seem outraged that I even offer the “less safe” vaccine, and it’s a no-brainer for them. They want absolutely no risk of a tumor, no matter how low the possibility. Others scoff at the idea of the low tumor risk, take their chances and don’t want to be bothered thinking about annual vaccination. At least I give these folks the choice, and their decision is an informed one.

Let me close by saying I have seen 3 little littermates die of parvo, a tiny pet store puppy die of kennel-cough-related pneumonia, and shelter cats die of distemper. I have seen adult dogs die of parvo and distemper because their owners never had them vaccinated.

These are not pretty deaths.

Prolonged respiratory, gastrointestinal signs, seizures, coma, death.

When you think we have the knowledge to prevent this suffering, I am pleased that my owners, 99% of the time, do the right thing. Vaccinate when indicated and develop a complete wellness plan for your Snoopies, your Pumpkins, your Fidos and your Muffintops.

Sleep tight, and don’t let the preventable diseases bite.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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