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Why do I have to vaccinate my dog every year?

This is a question that often comes up, because the WSAVA Vaccine Guidelines (issued by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association) are periodically updated, recommending longer vaccination intervals. This gets a lot of press coverage, and as a result, people often think that the standard vaccine protocols are in some way harmful; or that they can delay vaccination and it won’t matter. Unfortunately, the truth is much more complicated than that.

Informative image: vaccination in dogs

The confusion comes about because the WSAVA publishes general guidelines on vaccination protocols designed for vets across the world to use - they’re not definitive rules, set in stone! They are really useful, but (and it’s a big but) they need to be interpreted in light of local conditions in the UK, because what vaccines are needed here aren’t necessarily the same as those needed in California, or Siberia, or Uganda. That’s why you need to discuss any concerns you have about vaccination with one of our vets - whose experience and training will enable them to help you choose what’s right for you and your dog here in the UK.

Ultimately, there are three issues that we need to look at - what diseases you want to protect your dog from; how long the vaccine lasts for; and what the risks are.

What diseases do we vaccinate for?

The WSAVA regards three vaccines as “Core”, meaning that every dog should be vaccinated against them - and we agree entirely with them on this! These diseases are those which are likely to be fatal, are easily spread between dogs, and/or have a severe impact on quality of life -  Distemper, Parvovirus and Infectious Canine Hepatitis. However, we would add an extra disease to that list - Leptospirosis. This disease is very common in the UK, and although rarely life-threatening, it is easily spread, severe, and zoonotic (which means that humans can catch it).

Other optional vaccines available are for Parainfluenza and Bordetella (the major causes of kennel cough), Rabies (legally required if you want to take your dog abroad and then come back to the UK), Lyme Disease (mainly a risk in the south and west of Britain) and Leishmaniasis (an exotic infection only found in southern Europe). Which of these we’ll recommend depends on your dog’s lifestyle and their individual risk of infection - so, for example, if you never take your dog abroad, we wouldn’t recommend that you waste your money on Rabies or Leishmania vaccines.

How long do the vaccines last?

It depends on the vaccine and on the vaccine’s license. However, vaccines don’t last forever - eventually their effectiveness and therefore the protection they offer declines. As a rule of thumb:

●     Distemper, Parvovirus, Hepatitis and Rabies vaccines last 3 years.

●     Leptospirosis, Parainfluenza, Bordetella, Lyme Disease and Leishmania vaccines last only one year.

So, you can see where the confusion has come from - because the WSAVA regards Lepto as “non-Core”, they have said that dogs only need vaccinating every 3 years. However, in the UK, Lepto is so important that it needs to be kept up to date - meaning our dogs need annual vaccination.

The other complication is the legal situation - vets are, generally, legally obliged to use medications (including vaccines) in accordance with the manufacturer’s guidelines. If the manufacturer cannot prove that the vaccine lasts the full 3 years, it doesn’t matter what the WSAVA say - it’s irresponsible for us to recommend you only vaccinate every 3 years, as we could be leaving your dog unprotected.

At the moment, the major vaccine manufacturers are all happy with the durations of activity listed above, but vaccine protocols won’t - and shouldn’t - change until the manufacturers can prove their effectiveness over longer periods.

What are the risks of overvaccination?

Here’s where things get sticky. Theoretically, overvaccination could increase the risk of autoimmune disease (where the immune system goes haywire and attacks the body’s own tissues); and could lead to a range of other inflammatory conditions. However, there’s no actual evidence that this is an issue in dogs - no study has demonstrated a clear, unambiguous link between vaccine frequency and other diseases. That said, it is sensible to limit the number of vaccines given to the minimum required for protection (apart from anything else, it’ll save you money!).

On the other hand, undervaccination has a well established and proven link with developing severe and potentially fatal diseases!

So where do we go from here?

Our standard vaccination protocols are designed to protect our patients as safely and completely as possible. If you’re concerned about your dog, or think they may be at increased risk, give us a ring and talk to one of our vets so we can advise you on how best to protect them as an individual.