Pets & Animals: Your pet vaccine questions answered

Curious which vaccinations your furry friend needs and when to get them? Our resident veterinarianDr. Courtney Andrews answers your questions

We have heard a lot about vaccines in the last few years. There are many opinions out there, but the fact is that vaccines prevent severe illness and save lives. This is not just true for humans, but also in animal populations both wild and domestic.

We are fortunate that the incidences of many viral diseases are low in Ontario, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The last outbreak of rabies virus was detected in raccoons around Hamilton in 2015. Then, in 2022, there were more than 200 cases of rabies-infected raccoons tested. Parvovirus is everywhere, every spring there are multiple cases throughout the city and many lives have been lost to a disease that is entirely preventable.

These are hard cases for owners and the veterinary staff entrusted to care for them. For both rabies and parvovirus, there is no cure. Rabies is fatal. For those infected with parvovirus, all we can do is try to support them through it, but even with 24-hour ICU care, the mortality rate is still 20-45 per cent.

In light of this, I want to answer a few questions about vaccines for pets: what are the vaccines available, which are required, when do you need them.

Vaccinations can be divided into two main categories: core and non-core. Core vaccines are required for every pet and should be kept up to date for life, even indoor cats. Core vaccines for dogs are parvovirus, distemper, adenovirus (DA2PV) and rabies, and for cats calicivirus, panleukemia, herpesvirus-1 (FVRCP) and rabies.

Rabies vaccine is required by the Health Protection and Prevention Act of Ontario for cats, dogs and ferrets.

I often refer to non-core vaccines as lifestyle vaccines. They differ from patient to patient depending on what they do in their day-to-day life. Kennel cough, Lyme and leptospirosis are the main lifestyle vaccines for dogs.

Kennel cough is a must if you frequent the dog park, take training classes or if you need to board your pet.

Leptospirosis is a bacterium that is spread through the urine of wildlife, and dogs contract it by drinking from contaminated water sources. It is also zoonotic, meaning it can infect humans as well, so camping, hiking or even hitting the lovely trails around town can put your dog at increased risk.

If you frequent Lyme-endemic areas (Kingston is a particular hotspot) then Lyme vaccination and tick preventives are recommended. It is important to discuss your exercise and travel plans with your veterinary team to make sure your dog is protected.

The American Animal Health Association considers feline leukemia vaccine core for all cats under one year of age, and then non-core depending on risk for adult cats. It is shed in saliva, feces and urine, and therefore spreads quickly in cats that are in close proximity to each other.

Cats that go outdoors, in catteries or multi-cat households are recommended to continue this vaccine throughout their life.

So now that we know what the vaccines are, when do we give them?

Rabies vaccine is given once between 12 and 16 weeks of age, and then boosted a year later. Afterwards, the vaccine is given every three years.

For DA2PV and FVRCP, puppies and kittens or pets who have never received a vaccination require at least two boosters. This is to ensure their immune system has been stimulated to produce antibodies.

Young animals absorb antibodies from their mother’s milk in colostrum the first few days after birth. These antibodies slowly break down over several weeks so we must give at least two boosters, often three in order to make sure our pets are protected. A single booster is given a year later and then extends to every three years to stay current.

Lifestyle vaccines are usually once a year after the initial booster series, which varies depending on the vaccine.

There are some pets that have reactions to certain vaccinations or cannot be vaccinated due to underlying disease. By keeping pets that are able to be vaccinated up to date it helps protect these animals.

Your veterinary team can help you determine what vaccinations your pet needs and set a reminder schedule to make sure you never miss a booster.

Dr. Courtney Andrews is a veterinarian at Lockerby Animal Hospital, a graduate of the Royal School of Veterinary Studies and dog mom to Argyll and Einstein. Animals & Pets is made possible by our Community Leaders Program.

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