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Vaccination Guidelines

Dr. Lila Miller, DVM, ASPCA

The recognition that serious medical conditions such as certain sarcomas and auto- immune hemolytic anemia may be vaccination related have forced the veterinary profession to re-exam vaccine safety and reassess recommendations for vaccinating the average pet owner’s companion animal. While the benefits of vaccination still far outweigh the risks, a careful assessment of the risk factors of each individual animal should be undertaken before deciding on a vaccination protocol. Recent investigation into the origins of recommendations for yearly vaccinations for dogs and cats pets have revealed that they may not have been based on any duration of immunity studies or other true scientific data. They are not legal requirements, and have become the subject of the hottest debates in small animal medicine today. The latest studies, although not totally conclusive, provide compelling reasons to believe that many vaccines provide immunity from disease for several years and that annual boosters are not only not necessary but may, in fact, be harmful. Many veterinarians are offering to check vaccination titers in lieu of giving the routine annual booster shot. The days of going to the veterinarian for an annual booster may soon be a thing of the past, to be replaced with an annual physical examination with appropriate vaccinations at specified intervals only.

Vaccination Guidelines


When deciding on a vaccination schedule for your pet, you and your veterinarian may need to take the following into consideration:

  1. Is the vaccine necessary?
    Is the disease found in the area, and how dangerous is the disease?
    Is the disease contagious to people?
  2. How effective is the vaccine?
  3. How safe is the vaccine?
  4. What is the animal’s age?
    The very young and very old are more in need of vaccination to protect against infectious diseases than adult animals.
  5. What is the general overall health?
    Immune-compromised, debilitated, pregnant, sick, and stressed animals all present special circumstances that the veterinarian should take into consideration before vaccination
  6. What is the animal’s risk of exposure to the disease?
    For example, cats that stay indoors exclusively have very limited, if any, exposure to outside diseases unless the caregiver is working in a shelter or animal hospital, for example, and brings disease home on their hands or clothing. These cats may not require yearly vaccinations, except for rabies if required by local ordnances. Many ordinances require rabies every three years rather than annually.
  7. What is the prevalence of the disease in general?
    Some areas never experience cases of Lyme disease or corona, so vaccination against these diseases makes little sense unless the owner travels with the pet to areas where these diseases have been found.
  8. What is your pet’s past vaccination history?
    Animals that have experienced vaccine reactions in the past should be handled with caution when administering booster vaccinations.
  9. What is the pet’s lifestyle?
    If the pet travels or has frequent close contact with other animals (groomers, kennels, obedience classes, etc), a different vaccination protocol may be necessary.

Many vaccination guidelines divide vaccinations into core and optional vaccines. Core vaccines are usually given against diseases that are high risk, highly dangerous diseases that are widely encountered and may or may not be spread to humans. In general, optional vaccines are given against diseases that may have a regional distribution, do not cause serious illness, may be encountered infrequently or in certain populations only. Optional vaccines may also be of limited effectiveness. Based on duration of immunity studies and concern about adverse vaccine reactions, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) recommends that cats no longer be vaccinated annually as a matter of routine. AAFP recommends that kittens should be vaccinated initially with the appropriate vaccination series for their age and type of vaccine used, then a year later, then every 3 years for panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis, and calici virus. Rabies should be given initially, one year later and every 3 years with a vaccine specifically licensed for 3 years and in accordance with specific local regulations. These vaccines are considered by most veterinarians to be the core vaccinations to be given to almost all kittens and cats. . Some veterinarians may consider FeLV a core vaccine, but it is recommended that cats be tested first and the vaccine administered if they are at risk for exposure only.

Other feline optional vaccines include feline leukemia (FeLV), FIV, chlamydia, ringworm, giardia, bordetella and FIP

Due to concern about vaccine associated sarcomas, it has been recommended that vaccines be given in specific anatomic sites- rabies in the right rear leg, leukemia in the left rear leg and the trivalent panleukopenia, rhinotracheitis and calici in the right front leg. If a tumor occurs, it is easier to amputate a limb to achieve the wide excision necessary to save the cat’s life than to try and resect a large area over most other parts of the body. It is also recommended that vaccine serial numbers be recorded so that reactions can be traced back to the batch of vaccine that was used.

Similar three-year guidelines have not yet been officially formulated for dogs, but many veterinarians believe that canine vaccines should also be given every three years only. The core vaccines for dogs are generally considered to be distemper, parvo, hepatitis and parainfluenza. In some areas where Leptospirosis is a common problem, the vaccine against this disease might also be considered by some to be a core vaccine. Other optional vaccines include Lyme, corona, Giardia and Bordetella/Parainfluenza for dogs that frequently board or travel around areas of dense populations of dogs (i.e. dog shows) and are subject to catch kennel cough.

Recommended Core Feline Vaccination Protocol:

Feline Panleukopenia
Feline Rhinotracheitis (Herpes)
Feline Calici
Give initial core vaccination series to kittens, then give one year later and every three years thereafter.

Optional Feline vaccines

Feline Leukemia (FeLV)
Feline Infectious Peritonitis
Microsporum Canis (Ringworm)
Chlamydia psittaci (renamed Chlamydophila)
Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
Assess risk carefully before giving these optional vaccines. The FIV vaccine is new.

Recommended Core Canine Vaccine Protocol

Canine Distemper
Canine Adenovirus (hepatitis)
Canine Parainfluenza
Canine Parvo
Give initial vaccination series to puppies, then give one year later and every three years thereafter. Certain breeds may need to get a parvo shot more frequently- i.e. Rottweilers, Dobermans, pit bulls

Optional Canine vaccines

Canine corona
Assess risk carefully before giving these optional vaccines.

It should be remembered that each veterinarian must ultimately decide on the safest and most effective vaccination protocol to use to protect their patients against infectious diseases. It may not be the same for every animal even if the external circumstances seem similar.

© 2002 ASPCA

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