Vaccinations: What Will You Do This Year??

By Shawn Messonnier, DVM

Does my pet really need shots this year?

When you get your reminder card this year from the veterinarian, letting you know that it's time for your pet's annual "shots," what will you do? Will you simply go in for the annual shots, assuming that your pet automatically needs a series of injections for just about every major viral or bacterial infection he might encounter? Or will you stop and think to yourself, "Does my pet really need shots again this year? If so, why? Isn't there more to health care for my pet than simply a quick visit for some shots?"

There is no question that annual immunization has decreased the number of infectious diseases we see in our pets. Gone are the days when every other pet coming in the door had distemper or parvoviral infection. For the most part, these illnesses are a thing of the past. Now however, pet owners must question if annual immunizations are needed, and if they might pose a risk to their dogs and cats.

Many years ago, when infectious diseases were the number one cause of death for both pets and their owners, a regular series of immunizations was critical to prevent early illness and death. And because infectious diseases can in some cases easily wipe out a majority of the population it was important to maintain immunity among most if not all members of the population.

Now however, we can control most infectious diseases quite adequately. Yes, we still occasionally see infections in dogs and cats, but for the most part, infectious diseases, especially those that were uniformly fatal until the advent of vaccines, are pretty well under control.

Immunization has decreased the number of infectious diseases we see in our pets. but many chronic immune conditions and cancers are suspected to be related to over-use of vaccinations.

This means that while a well-immunized pet population is still needed to minimize the threat from infectious diseases, we should now concentrate our efforts on the problems currently challenging our pets' health. These are the same health problems we face as well, including cancers, kidney and liver disorders, dental disease (the #1 health problem in dogs and cats), and heart disease.

There are 2 main views on the vaccination issue. On one side is the doctor who believes all pets should be immunized each year for everything possible, period. Regardless of actual immunity or exposure to infectious organisms, this doctor doesn't want to change his ways without overwhelming proof that changes need to be made.

In the opposite corner is the true naturopath who believes immunizations are horrible poisons that are responsible for every disease under the sun, and is opposed to any and all immunizations for any reason. This person would argue that the risk of contracting a serious or fatal infection in a healthy pet is far less likely than the damage inflicted by toxic vaccinations administered to a pet which does not need them. In other words, the danger inflicted by vaccines is worse than any disease a dog or cat could contract.

So what's the truth? Probably somewhere in between. Since most vaccines are labeled for annual use (some are given every 6 months as in the case of the canine Bordetella vaccine), simply changing our recommendations would be in direct opposition to how our vaccines are labeled, opening up doctors to all sorts of potential liability. Still, there is no doubt that some vaccines may induce immunity in some pets longer than the 12-month period stated on the vaccine label. And of course, we don't want to overtreat any pet with medication. We now have to face the fact that vaccines (in reality, any injection) may be the cause of a new disorder called "injection site sarcoma," a fatal cancer, resulting from injections (usually vaccines), that occurs in anywhere from 1 in 1000 to 1 in 10,000 cats. If immunity may last longer than 12 months, why over-immunize your pet and risk any side effects including the injection site sarcomas?

Like any medication we administer to a pet, there are potential; side effects from vacations.

Diseases suspected to be caused by vaccinations; side effects of vaccinations

A concern among many people when it comes to regular vaccinations is the chance of the pet suffering from both short and long term side effects. Like any medication we administer to a pet, there are potential side effects from vaccinations.

Remember that when we vaccinate a pet, we are administering modified live, killed viral, or bacterial particles to that pet. Even though these infectious agents have been altered (by temperature or chemicals) to render them noninfectious, side effects can and do occur. Additionally, because vaccines are prepared with chemical adjuvants, designed to increase stimulation of the pet's immune system, side effects are possible as a result of the adjuvant used in addition to the infectious organisms contained within the vaccine.

Short-term side effects can be rare, as in the case of a life-threatening allergic reaction, to relatively common, such as swelling and discomfort at the site of the vaccination. Short-term side effects are much more common than long term side effects. Except for a severe allergic reaction, short-term side effects are usually less serious than long-term side effects. Short-term side effects include:









Allergic Reactions

Consider having vaccine titers checked each year to determine if immunizations are needed... vaccinations are just one small part of the whole health care picture.

These short-term side effects are relatively common, occurring in approximately 50% of the pets which receive immunizations.

Long-term side effects are also a concern among many doctors and pet owners. Many chronic immune conditions and cancers are suspected to be related to over-use of vaccinations. Long-term side effects include:

Immune-Mediated Diseases (thyroid disease, anemia, low platelet counts)


As I mentioned above, a type of cancer called a sarcoma, a solid tumor of the skin, has recently been linked in some cats to injections, including vaccinations. This phenomenon has not been reported in dogs yet, but is a cause for concern among all pet owners. Other types of cancers, such as blood cancers, are suspected to be related to problems with the immune system. While most cancers have not been proven to be related to annual vaccination, once again we must exercise caution when recommending annual vaccination for all pets. Time will tell if vaccine-induced cancers will be discovered in dogs.

So then, how do you decide what to do this year when you receive that reminder for your pet's immunizations? What is the most holistic answer to this tough question?

Vaccine titers

While this approach has some flaws, I propose that pet owners consider having vaccine titers checked each year to determine if immunizations are needed. These blood tests are inexpensive (we charge $45) and are the only objective way to look at a pet's antibody level against infectious diseases.

When your pet is immunized, ideally his immune system should respond by producing antibodies. These antibodies will, upon future exposure to the bacterium or virus, destroy the bacterium or virus, preventing the microorganism from causing illness or death in your pet.

Titers are mathematical representations of the pet's antibody level. While there is no definite agreed upon "correct level" for titers, in general, titers of 1:64 or greater are usually considered protective (meaning further vaccination is probably not warranted) and titers less than 1:64 are not protective (indicating current immunization may be needed).

These tests are easily run by most veterinarians. Your doctor needs to draw only about 2 cc of blood from your pet in order for the laboratory to determine the vaccine titer. By running an annual titer, your pet's doctor can work with you to make a decision regarding what immunizations, if any, YOUR pet needs, rather than making a generic recommendation based on the "average" pet.

In our practice, we run titers for distemper and parvovirus for our dog patients. For cats, we do titers for panleukopenia, calicivirus, and rhinopneumonitis. We send the blood to our state lab and have results back in about 2 weeks.

Taking this approach in effect reaches a compromise between those who say all pets should be immunized each year and those who are against vaccination of adult pets. For those owners who elect not to have the titers run, a decision will need to be made based upon a number of factors; usually, the doctor will recommend annual immunization if he cannot determine your pet's current immune status. By taking the truly holistic approach, it is possible to fit health care recommendations to the needs of each pet.

Regardless of which approach you take, keep in mind that vaccinations are just one small part of the whole health care picture. An annual physical examination, blood testing to check for things like diabetes, thyroid disease, blood cancers, and kidney and liver diseases are always more important than vaccinations since your dog or cat is most likely to die from these degenerative disorders than from infectious diseases.

It's time we start treating our dogs and cats the way we treat ourselves. Early diagnosis and treatment of those problems most likely to adversely affect our beloved canine and feline family members just makes good sense. Vaccine titers give us one more weapon in our health care arsenal as we attempt to protect your pet from disease and determine exactly what health care he needs.

About the Author

Dr. Shawn Messonnier is the holistic columnist for Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy magazine. He is a consultant to Ark Naturals and is the veterinarian for . To learn more about the holistic treatment of cancer and other diseases and nutritional supplementation for your pet, or to obtain a Pet Care Naturally Resource Guide, visit his new website at . To consult with him about your pet's problem, you can reach him at 972-867-8800.