The Dog Vaccine Booster Debate


Most of us are used to hearing the mantra that responsible dog owners should vaccinate their dogs and then boost annually. Recently however, vaccine safety has been questioned. Could annual vaccination boosters soon be a thing of the past? With many vets and dog owners questioning the necessity of annual vaccine boosters, what is the best option to take?

Any dog owner and vet needs to weigh up the pros and cons of annual vaccination boosters for that animal. The vet and owner must take into account the perceived risks of the vaccine versus the likelihood of contracting a potentially life-threatening disease. This is especially important for a dog that has existing medical conditions which might make the dog an unsuitable candidate for annual boosters but it is now also being seen as important for any dog, even healthy ones. Recent evidence seems to suggest that immunity for many of the vaccinated diseases lasts more than a year, so are annual vaccine boosters really necessary?

What are we actually vaccinating against? Dogs are usually vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza and leptospirosis. These are the most common, highly contagious diseases that can cause serious illness or death in dogs. Vaccines contain small amounts of altered viruses and bacteria which stimulate a dog’s immune system to produce antibodies to the disease. Dogs who use kennels or show dogs who meet many other dogs in close proximity may also be vaccinated against kennel cough.

Vaccines have been blamed for many things like allergic reactions, cancers, autoimmune diseases and even behavioural problems. Could over vaccination be the cause? Many now believe that over-vaccinating destabilises the immune system, potentially leading to all sorts of chronic illnesses. But does non-vaccination leave your dog open to viral disease? Even vaccines cannot guarantee immunity. Is the answer to keep your dog as healthy as possible and research alternatives. Either way, you will most likely find yourself in a lose-lose situation. If you vaccinate then you can, in some cases, get problems related to the vaccine. If you do not vaccinate then you can, in some cases, get problems from infectious viral disease. What problems would you rather face? What do you consider to be the pros and cons for your own dog?     

Vet Bruce Fogle warns that having a healthy well nourished dog does not safeguard against infection. “Antibodies produced by the immune system give protection. These are produced either by surviving the disease or through preventative inoculation”. Fogle also warns about the pitfalls of stating cause and effect when looking at reactions in dogs and attributing them to the annual booster vaccination. A clear link needs to be established.
Catherine O’Driscoll formed Canine Health Concern in 1994 after two of her dogs tragically died. Undertaking research free from commercial bias, Catherine proposed that the annual boosters we give our pets in the belief we are protecting them from disease are actually the cause of ill health in our pets today. Catharine started a quest to make vets and owners aware of the dangers of over-vaccination and to promote genuine canine health care, uninfluenced by the marketing of commercial corporations.
Dr. Jean Dodds' Recommended Vaccination Schedule claims that distemper is rare and boosters for this have been questioned as some research suggests that once a dog is vaccinated they are protected for years or even life. Similarly, there is a claim that Leptospirosis is also rare and has seen some of the worse reactions to vaccination so risk could well outweigh benefit. According to these recommendations, parvovirus is rarely a problem for normal healthy dogs and the initial vaccine has been shown to last approx 7 years or even a life time.

Consider though that these rare diseases are rare because of vaccinations. Bruce Fogle points out that when he started work in practice infectious disease was the greatest dog killer. Fogle says “Now I see perhaps one death every five years. In poor countries where vaccination is too costly, infectious disease remains the greatest cause of preventable death”. “In western Europe we learned our lesson from what happened in Finland in the early 1990s. When people stopped vaccinating their dogs because it seemed distemper was no longer a threat, and the protected population dropped below the critical level, the disease re-emerged, causing an epidemic of more than 1,200 cases”.  Catherine O’Driscoll counters this by saying that vaccines do not guarantee protection. “When disease outbreaks occur, both vaccinated and non-vaccinated dogs succumb”.  The National Office of Animal Health (NOAH) reported more regular incidences of the highly infectious and often fatal disease parvovirus. NOAH chief executive Phil Sketchley said “Just because a dog has his jabs as a puppy does not mean he is protected now. Vaccination needs to be kept up to date by regular boosters”.
Some manufacturers advise that distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus vaccinations do not need to be given every year for immunity to be maintained but state that leptospirosis is still prevalent and should be vaccinated against annually.

More and more vaccine companies now suggest two or three year gaps between booster vaccinations as there is mounting evidence that most dogs can go for many years without needing boosters. Yet many insurance companies and boarding kennels request that annual vaccination boosters take place. What is the way round this? You can find an insurance policy that will pay out except for cases of a disease for which a vaccine could have been given. With regards boarding kennels, you could ask if the kennels will accept a titre blood test to show that your dog has sufficient antibodies or you could find a reputable home sitter.

At the moment there are more questions than answers. If vaccines are necessary evils can we do anything to get the best of both worlds? One suggestion is to vaccinate pups and also give the first annual booster and after that consider titre testing your dog's blood for antibody levels. Your vet can test for parvo, hepatitis and distemper antibodies. If antibody level remains high then discuss whether the annual boosters for those diseases can be avoided that year. Titre testing cannot be used for parainfluenza or leptospirosis. Discuss with your vet whether there is a need for your dog to have the non-core vaccinations. Take into account the risks of these diseases in your area, the specific risk or lack of to your own dog and the effectiveness or otherwise of the vaccine itself to decide what is and what is not necessary for your dog.  Even if vaccination boosters do not cause adverse reactions, for arguments sake, it still makes sense to review the ‘annual vaccination’ mantra. Avoiding unnecessary vaccination is obviously sensible.