Updated: Aug 1, 2020
The vaccine debate is a very emotional one with both the pro-vaccination and anti-vaccination groups standing firm in their positions. There is concern by many about the side effects of vaccinations and on the other hand, there are those who are concerned about the health risks of not vaccinating our children.
The issue is prevalent in the veterinary world as well with the same arguments about the side effects vs disease prevention.
Vaccines can cause a wide range of health concerns for our cats and dogs as shown in the below graphic. Side effects may present immediately after a vaccination or from a course of vaccinations over time.
It is common practice for vets to recommend annual vaccinations for both cats and dogs.
The core vaccines recommended (for every animal) protect against:
Dogs: canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus (which causes infectious hepatitis), canine parvovirus
Cats: feline parvovirus (also known as feline enteritis and feline panleucopaenia), feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus.
The non-core vaccines recommended (not for every animal - only those considered to be at risk through exposure) protect against:
Dogs: canine parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Leptospira interrogans
Cats: feline leukaemia virus, Chlamadophila psittaci, feline immunodeficiency virus ('FIV').
Commonly, vaccines are combined to protect against multiple core and/or non-core diseases:
C3 (core): parvovirus, distemper and infections hepatitis
C4: C3 + parainfluenza virus
C5: C4 + bordetella bronchiseptica
F3 (core): feline parvovirus, feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus
F4: F3 + leukaemia virus
F5: F4 + immunodeficiency virus
Vaccinating on a triennial basis
In the 1990s, research was conducted which revealed that some vaccines provide cats and dogs with lifetime immunity.
In recent years there has been a move towards reducing the frequency of vaccinations and in fact veterinary industry bodies around the world recommend (since the 1990s) vaccinations on a triennial basis rather than annually.
The World Small Animal Veterinary Association began advising vets in 2007 to reduce the frequency of core vaccines. In 2010, the WSAVA released revised guidelines stating that:
"core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 12-month booster injection following the puppy/kitten series, because the duration of immunity is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet".
In Australia, the Australian Veterinary Association issued a revised policy in June 2009 stating that in most cases core vaccines don't need to be administered any more frequently than triennially, or even less in certain circumstances, for example, if your pet is kept inside and less likely to come into contact with these viruses.
So if the research shows that annual vaccinations are not necessary, and the industry associations are recommending triennial vaccinations, why do vets continue to vaccinate annually?
First of all, the industry associations are only making recommendations. It is not obligatory for vets to follow these recommendations.
Secondly, it is thought that there is a reluctance by vets to reduce the frequency of vaccinations because of the precautionary measure of following manufacturer's recommendations for annual revaccination in order to avoid legal consequences. This precautionary view has disregard for Australian legislation which permits vets to use vaccines at whatever interval they determine best - there is no legal obligation on vets to follow recommendations on vaccine labels.
Thirdly, some vets think that people will only bring their companion animals in for annual wellness checks if there is a requirement to annually vaccinate (Veterinary Practice News, March 2013).
What vaccination protocol should you follow?
The WSAVA states that the duration of immunity is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet. With this in mind, the WSAVA recommends puppies and kittens are first vaccinated with the core vaccines at 6-8 weeks of age, followed by repeat vaccinations every 2-4 weeks until 16 weeks of age or older, followed by a booster at one year.
For non-core vaccines, the WSAVA states that these are only required by those animals whose geographical location, local environment or lifestyle places puts the animal at risk of contracting specific infections. The duration of immunity for non-core vaccines is generally one year.
After one year of the puppy/kitten core vaccine protocol being completed, you can assess whether your cat or dog requires further vaccination by doing antibody titre testing.
Antibody titre testing
Antibody titre testing is offered by some veterinarians as a way to measure a cat's or dog's immunity from a disease that is protected by vaccine. The benefit of antibody titre testing is that by identifying your furry companion's immunity from a particular disease, you (and your vet) can assess whether a vaccine is necessary.
Some vet clinics offer in-house titre testing, such as The Natural Vets on the Sunshine Coast. However, any vet can perform a titre test by utilising external lab services (eg VetPath / IDEXX).
My recommended approach
It's important for me to point out that I'm not a vet and it's a vet's role to advise you on a suitable vaccination protocol. However, in addition to the WSAVA recommended protocol above, I can share with you the protocol that my animals' vet recommends for core vaccines:
the first two core vaccines four weeks apart (eg 8 and 12 weeks);
a titre test at 16 weeks and the kennel cough vaccine intra-nasally / FIV if required;
a titre test at 12 months, vaccinating only if titre test indicates necessity and if at risk; and
a titre test every three years, vaccinating only if titre test indicates necessity and if at risk.
I always encourage my clients to be familiar with the WSAVA recommended guidelines so that they can be fully informed and to also weigh up the risk factors for their cat or dog contracting disease, for example, if a cat is always kept inside, the risk of contracting disease, such as FIV, is slim to none.
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1. Jergler, J 2013. 'Vets Slowly Move to 3- Year Protocol', in Veterinary Practice News, March 2013.