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As vets and pet owners, one of the most important things we can do for our pets is to make sure they are protected against infectious disease by vaccinating them. Many owners don’t think anything of coming in for their annual health check and vaccination. However, you may want to know more about how vaccinations protect your pets and which ones are required. It is sometimes hard to answer these in detail during the consultation: time can be limited and there are often other things to discuss. We have collected some of the questions we are most frequently asked – and their answers – below.
When an animal is infected with a disease, the immune system mobilises an army of specialised cells and chemical messengers to fight off the illness. As part of this response, some of the cells form a memory of the infectious agent. This means the next time it encounters the pathogen the animal is able to fight off the infection without becoming unwell. Vaccination protects animals by exposing them to pathogens that are killed or otherwise rendered harmless. This way, the immune system learns to recognise the infection without the animal becoming ill.
While it’s true that after being infected with many of these diseases the animal would be left immune, they would become very unwell first. These diseases are extremely serious and often fatal. The most commonly affected animals are also the most vulnerable – very young puppies and kittens. Vaccination saves many lives and countless hours of suffering.
Animals infected with the virulent form of the disease are also a risk to other animals, and in some cases to humans. Vaccination prevents them becoming unwell, so reduces the risk infection being passed on.
We want to protect pets as soon as possible after they are born. Puppies, kittens and baby rabbits are protected against infectious disease by antibodies from their mother. However, as they did not form these antibodies themselves, they don’t last indefinitely. After the first one or two months of life, this protection fades. Vaccination is first carried out when animals are around 8-10 weeks of age. The aim is to stimulate immunity as soon as possible, but after the passive immunity from mum, which can interfere with the vaccine, has waned.
As we don’t know exactly when the immunity from mum will fade, puppies and kittens are given more than one dose of vaccine, at intervals of between 2 and 4 weeks. Your vet or nurse will be able to tell you when their next dose is due.
The vaccinations given to a pet will depend on their lifestyle and disease risk. Pets which travel, stay in a kennel or cattery, or attend classes or shows require more protection than pets which stay at home.
All dogs in the UK should be vaccinated against distemper, canine hepatitis, parvovirus, and leptospirosis. Dogs which attend daycare, classes, shows or kennels should be protected against kennel cough.
Dogs which travel require rabies vaccination (by law). If your dog also spends time in the Mediterranean region, you might wish to consider vaccination against leishmaniasis.
Cats should be vaccinated against the pathogens that cause “cat flu” as well as deadly panleukopaenia virus. We also strongly advise vaccination against feline leukaemia virus. This would be a particularly good idea for cats that spend time outdoors, or if you own more than one cat.
Pet rabbits in the UK require vaccination to protect them from myxomatosis, and both strains of viral haemorrhagic disease – VHD 1 and VHD 2.
The answer to that question depends on the type of vaccine. Some vaccines (known as modified live vaccinations) stimulate long lasting immunity. Currently, we administer these vaccines, including DHP vaccines for dogs, feline leukaemia virus vaccination for cats, and rabies vaccines, every three years.
Other vaccinations don’t stimulate such a long lasting immunity and require re-vaccination annually. Forexample, leptospirosis vaccination for dogs is required annually. At your pet’s annual health check your veterinarian will be able to tell you which vaccinations are currently due.
Vaccination stimulates the immune system, which can trigger a mild fever. This is most commonly seen after initial vaccinations, though it is sometimes seen after re-vaccination. Your pet might be a little sleepy after their appointment: don’t be alarmed if this is the case. In most cases, pets feel and behave absolutely normally.
An allergic or adverse response to a vaccination is possible, as with any medication, but very rare. Signs of an allergic reaction may include swelling around the nose or mouth, diarrhoea or occasionally vomiting. If you have any concerns that your pet seems unwell after a vaccination, please contact the surgery for advice.
Pets can go about their normal routine in the run up to their vaccination appointment and after it. There is no need to withhold food before or after, or restrict exercise or activity.
Indoor only cats are at less risk of picking up illnesses than cats that go outside and have contact with other cats, but not at no risk at all. Certainly, they should be protected in their early months when they are most vulnerable, by receiving their kitten vaccinations. If they go to a boarding facility, or if one or more cats in the household does spend time outdoors, even those cats which stay inside themselves should still be considered at high risk of encountering disease. The WSAVA recommends that these cats should be vaccinated with the same frequency as those that go outside themselves.
If your cat is the only cat at home, and does not go to a boarding cattery, they are at a much lower risk of contracting an infectious disease. However, we can accidently carry pathogens home sometimes on our clothing or skin. WSAVA advice is that owners of these cats may wish to consider vaccination less frequently, but they should still be vaccinated. Of course, they should still receive an annual health check from their vet.
The more ‘technical’ name for kennel cough is infectious canine tracheobronchitis. (You can certainly see why kennel cough became a more popular term!) It is generally caused by two possible infectious agents or pathogens.
The first of these is a bacteria known as Bordetella bronchiseptica. This is quite closely related to the bacteria which causes whooping cough in people. Infection with B. bronchiseptica causes an unpleasant, harsh cough. Even with treatment this cough can persist for up to three months. This bacterial pathogen doesn’t generally take the form of multiple “strains”.
The other component of the kennel cough vaccine is a viral pathogen known as parainfluenza. As the name suggests, this is fairly similar to, though not closely related to, the human “flu” virus. Viruses often mutate rapidly and thus multiple strains of virus might be circulating at any one time. Vaccination with one strain will confer some protection against other, similar strains (a phenomenon known as crossprotection).
In addition, you may have noticed that the kennel cough vaccine is administered into the dog’s nostril (intra-nasally). We don’t just do this for fun, there’s actually an immunological reason to do this. Part of the body’s defence mechanisms against disease are associated with the most common places for disease to enter – the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal and upper respiratory tract. These non-specific defence mechanisms are based around “mucosal associated lymphatic tissue”. Administering the vaccine near this tissue helps the cells to prepare for any pathogens entering by this route, not just the specific ones contained in the vaccine. Just like the flu vaccine in humans, dogs vaccinated against kennel cough are not 100% guaranteed not to pick up an infection. However, they are much less likely to, and if they do vaccinated dogs also recover much more quickly and are much less infectious to other dogs.
Pet rabbits are actually even more vulnerable to infectious disease than dogs or cats. After all, there are almost no stray or feral dogs roaming the streets in the UK, and very few wild or feral cats. But there is a large population of wild rabbits that are genetically the same as our pet bunnies. In addition to this, deadly infectious diseases were deliberately introduced into this wild population in past attempts to control numbers. Myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease remain common, and in some cases are even increasing in frequency. Fleas carry myxomatosis, and VHD can even be carried short distances by wind, so direct contact with wild rabbits isn’t needed for infection to be transmitted. While cases of disease such as distemper in dogs or panleukopaenia in cats are luckily rare now due to excellent uptake of vaccination, we still regularly see pet rabbits with myxomatosis or VHD, and very few survive. Protecting rabbits is just as important as protecting dogs and cats.