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Ask The Vet: What Vaccines Do Dogs Need?

Vaccines Dogs Need

What vaccines do dogs need? Vaccinations are used in dogs to protect them from harmful and potentially life threatening illnesses. A vaccine is made of either weakened or killed components of a microorganism or virus that is just strong enough to mount an immune reaction, but not enough to cause the disease. That immune reaction creates memory defense cells that are ready to prevent disease should that dog get exposed to it.

By vaccinating dogs, not only are we protecting that individual animal, but we are also limiting spread, thus protecting the community. This phenomenon is called "herd immunity." It is typically much easier, cheaper, and safer to prevent diseases than to treat them. Having your dogs vaccinated is part of being a responsible pet owner. Additionally physical exams should accompany every vaccine visit. These annual or semi-annual exams often identify problems, allowing proactive measures to be taken rather than reactive ones, which often work out more favorably.

What vaccines do dogs need?

What vaccines do dogs need?

What Vaccines Do Dogs Need?

Vaccines in dogs are divided into two categories, core or required, and noncore or risk-based. The core vaccines are Rabies and Distemper.

Rabies is a virus that is 100 percent fatal for both animals and humans. It is required by law by most states. Rabies causes severe neurological signs, most famously severe aggression. Unfortunately there is no accurate test available while the animal is alive. Should a non-vaccinated dog bite another animal or person, the pet owner may be liable.

The Distemper vaccine is actually a combination of several viruses: Distemper, Adenovirus, Parvovirus, and Parainfluenza. These are all potentially life threatening diseases. The good news is that we do not see them very often because the vaccine is so effective.

Noncore vaccines should be given based on risk of exposure. These vaccines include Bordetella, Leptospirosis, Lyme Disease, and Canine Influenza.Dogs that frequently go to dog parks, groomers, boarding facilities, or daycare are at higher risk of being exposed to infections spread by other dogs.

Bordetella is a common bacteria that causes upper respiratory tract infections. It is commonly known as Kennel Cough. This is slightly a misnomer as Kennel Cough, otherwise known as Canine Infectious Respiratory Disease (CIRD) is a complex caused by a number of bacteria and viruses. Nonetheless vaccinating your dog with Bordetella does provide a level of protection against one of the more common causes of CIRD.

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Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection transmitted through the urine of infected animals. This includes wildlife. Dogs can pick this up if they have access to stagnant water such as ponds, puddles, even damp soil. It typically causes liver and kidney disease. It is important to note that it is a zoonotic disease, meaning people can get affected if they are cleaning infected urine and are not diligent about washing their hands, or if they have a cut. Also there are numerous strains, so the vaccine is not 100 percent effective.

The strains included in the vaccine are those that are most common in the area. There may be some cross-reactivity, thus protection for more than what is in the vaccine is possible. Some boarding facilities do require this one because they do not want their yard contaminated, thus putting other dogs and staff at risk.

Lyme Disease is caused by a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted by ticks. A tick must be attached for 24 to 48 hours to transmit disease. Clinical signs include lethargy, fever, joint pain that can manifest as shifting leg lameness, and potentially kidney disease. However out of all dogs exposed to the bacteria, only 10 percent actually develop Lyme Disease. In addition to employing good tick prevention, it is still very important to vaccinate for it in endemic areas because it is so common.

The Canine Influenza Vaccine is recommended to dogs that will have contact with other dogs, or objects that have been used on other dogs, like tables at the groomers or sharing water bowels at dog parks. There have been two different types of dog flu that have gone through the U.S. in recent years.

Clinical signs range from coughing, lethargy, decreased appetite, to fever and pneumonia. It is very contagious. Similar to the human flu shot, if dogs are vaccinated, they still can get exposed and infected with the flu. However if they have protection from the vaccine, they will likely have less severe clinical signs with a shorter duration, and shed less virus into the environment. Many clinics carry the vaccine that protects against both strains.

Puppy Vaccination Schedules

When puppies are born and drink their mother’s milk, they are protected by maternal antibodies. These antibodies start wearing off around 6-8 weeks of age. This leads to the puppy becoming vulnerable. However those same maternal antibodies actually get in the way and prevent vaccines from being effective.

Keep in mind that vaccines take about 2 to 4 weeks to become protective. Therefore we start vaccinating as the maternal antibodies start wearing off, and carry out a series of vaccines to minimize that vulnerability period between mom’s antibodies and the development of their own.

Vaccines start at 6 to 8 weeks of age and are repeated every 3-4 weeks until 16 weeks of age. Every hospital may have a slightly different protocol, but there is a national standard set by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) that updates every few years (Ford et al 2007). Please discuss vaccine scheduling for your puppy with your veterinarian.

Here is a sample of what the schedule may look like:

puppy vaccination
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After the completion of the puppy series, the puppy is then cleared to play at dog parks and alike. They are up to date on vaccines for one year.

How Often Are Dogs Vaccinated?

As an adult the frequency of vaccine boosters depend on the type of vaccine given. There are both one year and three year rabies and distemper vaccines available. The others (Leptospirosis, Bordetella, Lyme, and Influenza) are given annually. Some clinics recommend boostering Bordetella once every 6 months.

For dogs with unknown vaccine histories, each vaccine other than rabies is given in a series of two injections, 3 to 4 weeks apart, and then is good for one year. Rabies, and intranasal Bordetella, is given once and is good for one year.

The dog’s first Rabies vaccine is always only good for one year, but the three year vaccines can be given thereafter. For legal reasons if there is no documentation of vaccines, especially Rabies, it is as good as if it never happened. [Re]vaccination is recommended, and even if the dog has had them within one year, it is still likely to be safe.

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Side Effects of Dog Vaccines 

Although there is some risk with vaccines, the benefit of individual and herd immunity well exceeds it. Should an adverse reaction occur, notify your veterinarian so that the proper measures can be taken to curb the reaction and to avoid further complications in the future.

It is worth reiterating that it is the responsibility of a good dog owner to have their dogs properly vaccinated as it is much easier on the dog, the family, and the pocketbook to prevent rather than to treat.

In most cases, the benefit of vaccines way out weighs the risk. Vaccinations are not released until they pass rigorous tests and very thorough research on their safety and efficacy. As technology improves, so does the quality of the vaccinations. There are fewer reactions seen these days than in the past. Many of these diseases are not seen often because the vaccines are that effective. There is a slight risk of adverse reactions, but it may not be as high as you think.

A study in 2005 showed that serious adverse reactions occurred in 0.38 percent of vaccinated dogs; that is less than 1 percent out of over one million dogs included in the study (Moore et al. 2005). The study found that risk does increase with the number of vaccines given at once. Also the smaller the dog, the higher chance of encountering a reaction.

Although vaccines are designed to be safe and not cause disease, they are stimulating an inflammatory reaction. It is not uncommon to have soreness at the site of the vaccine and sometimes lethargy or a mild fever. Other less common but more serious adverse reactions include vomiting and diarrhea, hives, facial swelling, and trouble breathing.

If your dog is going to have a bad reaction, it usually occurs within the first 20 to 60 minutes, but can take a day. Should any of these signs be observed, please contact your veterinarian immediately.

Measures can be taken to minimize the chance of bad reactions occurring again, while still vaccinating and keeping your dog protected. Vaccines can be separated by 3 to 4 weeks so spread out the work the immune system has to deal with at once. Anti-histamines or anti-inflammatories can be given prior to vaccines to prevent bad reactions as well.

Vaccines should only be avoided if deemed necessary by the veterinarian either due to previous life-threatening reaction or other debilitating disease. Also, it is a good idea to go to an established veterinary office as opposed to a mobile shot clinic. This is because the office is more equipped to deal with adverse reactions, have not moved to a different location by the time a reaction has occurred, and is more likely to perform a thorough physical exam.


  • Richard B. Ford, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DACVPM (Hon)†, Laurie J. Larson, DVM, Kent D. McClure, DVM, JD, Ronald D. Schultz, PhD, DACVM (Hon), Link V. Welborn, DVM, DABVP. 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines.
  • George E. Moore, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVPM, DACVIMLynn F. Guptill, DVM, PhD, DACVIM Michael P. Ward, BVSc, MS, MPVM, PhDNita W. Glickman, MPH, PhDKaren K. Faunt, DVM, DACVIMHugh B. Lewis, BVMS, DACVPLawrence T. Glickman, VMD, DrPH. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association October 1, 2005, Vol. 227, No. 7, Pages 1102-1108 <>." data-userid="1003531895895904256" data-orgid="1003531895916875777">

About the Author 

dr eric

Dr. Eric Weiner is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Orlando, Florida. He is a third generation veterinarian as both his father and grandfather are vets. Although he grew up following both of them around and wanted to be a veterinarian himself, he took a bit of a detour and attended Hofstra University originally as a music major.

Eventually realizing his true passion still lays within Veterinary Medicine, he switch majors and graduated in 2010 with a BA in biology and dual minors in biochemistry and music. Dr. Weiner attended Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine and graduated in 2015, concentrating in mixed animal medicine and surgery. During his clinical year, his favorite rotation was which ever he was currently on. He especially enjoyed spending time at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, where he worked closely with search and rescue dogs, diabetic alert dogs, and even cancer detection dogs.

When Dr. Weiner is not working with animals, he enjoys riding his motorcycle and playing baseball. He is married to his high school sweetheart and they are enjoying their brand new baby girl. In addition, they live with their therapy dog Murphy, and two cats, Stella and Luna.

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