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Anna Johnson One Tail at a Time

Annual vaccines. Does your dog really need ’em and how often does your dog need their shots? In this edition of “Ask an Expert,” One Tail at a Time Transport Intake & Medical Director Anna Johnson digs into what vaccines do for your dog and why they’re so important.

As the new kid to the OTAT team, I’ve got to say I’m loving getting to know this incredible community. So, I thought maybe you guys could get to know me a little bit, too!

As you do, you’ll come to know that one of my absolute favorite things to do is poke dogs with needles. No, OTAT hasn’t hired a sadist, I just LOVE vaccinating dogs, because I know it’s one of the best ways I can contribute to their overall health, and the health of our community. 

Vaccinations are super important not just for the health of your dog, but for what’s called “herd health” – or the health of the local population. Basically, this means that when a vast majority of the animals in our particular population – be it Bucktown, Chicago, or the whole of Illinois – are vaccinated, it provides a more generalized protection for the whole population, since the likelihood of running into an unvaccinated animal is so much slimmer.

Thus, even dogs who aren’t vaccinated are protected by the fact that most dogs around them ARE, and are unlikely to transmit any of the illnesses they’re vaccinated for. This isn’t a free pass to go all anti-vaxxer and skip your annual vaccines, though – the dogs who need this kind of protection are the ones who, for other health reasons, may not be able to be vaccinated. Those dogs and their families rely on the majority of us keeping our pups up to date to protect their doggos with herd health. 

Here’s a local example…

If you’ve adopted from OTAT in the last couple of years, you might notice that along with the usual distemper/parvo, bordatella, and rabies vaccines, we also vaccinate for a disease called leptospirosis. Fifteen years ago, when I was just beginning to work as a vet tech, the clinic where I worked was considered radical for offering the lepto vaccine – why, no one had seen a case of lepto in this area since the 80s! Surely vaccinating for lepto was overkill. 

As incidence of the disease went down, so did the trend towards vaccination – meaning that for years, a lot of dogs were unvaccinated for lepto. In the mid-2000s, surprise! – we’re seeing tons of cases of lepto, and most shelters and veterinarians have added this vaccine back into their regular preventative wellness routine as a result. What that means is that when larger segments of the population are not being vaccinated, the incidence of disease is higher. Makes sense, right?

So what do vaccines actually do?

They come in two types: Live and Killed. Both kinds contain miniscule amounts of the disease they are protecting against, with the basic mechanism being that they stimulate an immune response in your dog’s body that allows them to build an immunity towards that pathogen. When your dog gets their shots every year, they’re building that immunity against all the icky grossness that they can be exposed to in their everyday life – things like distemper, parvo, and lepto, which are simply present in the environment, or things like rabies, to which they can certainly risk exposure with wildlife, especially if, like my dogs, yours takes pleasure in the heartless killing of rodents. EEK. 

All of these diseases have a fairly high mortality rate, with distemper and rabies being damn near 100%, so for my money, vaccines are the cheapest and easiest way to protect your dog against the worst pathogenic threats. If, like many of us, you’re leaning towards a more natural lifestyle, there are many ways to minimize the number and frequency of vaccines you give your dog, without sacrificing their health and the overall safety of the community. 

One great option for dogs that have been vaccinated multiple times over the course of their life is titer testing. Titers are blood tests that measure the levels of antigen to a specific disease in your dogs’ blood. If the levels are appropriate, that vaccine can be skipped, and the test repeated the following year. If the levels are low, then that vaccine is indicated. Titers are available for distemper and parvovirus, but not for lepto, lyme disease, or bordatella, and also not for rabies. Another option is to ask your vet to administer three-year vaccines for your pup.

There are three-year approved vaccinations available for distemper/parvo, and rabies, but again, not for lepto, lyme disease, or bordatella. It’s also a great idea to have an open conversation with your vet about your dogs’ lifestyle and risk factors.

You absolutely don’t have to check every box on the vaccine menu without thought – some vaccines might not be necessary or appropriate for your dog, and with your vet’s help, you should be able to come up with a plan that keeps your dog safe without unnecessary needle pokes.

Next month, let’s talk about the most commonly recommended vaccines and who should get them.

Anna Johnson, OTAT Transport Intake and Medical Director