Pet Connection

Vaccine Routine

How often should you vaccinate your pet? Annually is not always the answer

By Kim Campbell Thornton

How often do you have your dog or cat vaccinated? If you're still following an annual schedule, you may want to reconsider.

Vaccines save lives; there's no doubt about it. They teach the immune system to recognize and fight off invading organisms that cause severe and sometimes fatal diseases, such as distemper and parvovirus.

But vaccinating too often brings potential health risks. Vaccine reactions are rare, but they include mild itching or swelling; vaccine sarcomas -- cancer at the injection site -- diagnosed in as many as 20,000 cats per year; autoimmune hemolytic anemia in dogs; and anaphylactic shock leading to death.

Veterinarians have suspected for years that annual vaccinations for cats and dogs aren't necessary, but large-scale, well-controlled duration-of-immunity studies didn't exist to prove it one way or the other. Now, however, published studies have shown that immunity provided by canine and feline core vaccines lasts for at least three years and often for a pet's lifetime.

What does this mean for your dog or cat? Instead of a one-size-fits-all recommendation, your pet's vaccination schedule should be tailored to his individual needs, based on factors such as age, health status and prevalence of disease in your area. In most cases, though, the fewer and less frequent vaccinations received, the better.

Most pets need only what are known as core vaccines. They protect against the most common and most serious diseases. In dogs, the core vaccines are distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis and rabies. (Most states require dogs be vaccinated for rabies every three years.) In cats, core vaccines are panleukopenia, calicivirus, rhinotracheitis (herpesvirus) and rabies (if required by law).

For puppies and kittens, current recommendations are to begin immunizations no earlier than 6 to 8 weeks of age and repeat them every three to four weeks until the animal is 16 to 20 weeks old. To reduce the risk of maternal antibodies interfering with the vaccines, the final dose is usually administered when a pet is 14 to 16 weeks or older, followed by a booster vaccination at 1 year.

After that, pets can be revaccinated every three years. An alternative to triennial vaccinations is titers every three years. Titers, tests that determine whether the body has antibodies to disease, are reliable, and costs are typically comparable to those for vaccinations.

Titers don't measure whether antibody levels are "high" or "low."

"Any measurable titer to a specific antigen means you've got immune memory cells for that antigen," says veterinary immunology expert Jean Dodds, DVM.

Work with your veterinarian to determine which vaccinations are appropriate for your dog or cat, based on lifestyle and risk. For instance, outdoor cats benefit from the non-core vaccine for feline leukemia because they have a greater chance of exposure to the disease. On the dog side, a dog in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin who hikes in the woods frequently with his owner may be a candidate for the non-core Lyme disease vaccine, unlike a dog who lives in a high-rise in Chicago.

Those non-core vaccines, recommended only for animals at high risk, are the exception to the "every three years" rule.

"If they're not given annually, then immunity really will be lost," says Ronald Schultz, DVM, an internal medicine specialist and professor of pathobiological sciences at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine in Madison. "Those non-core vaccines don't cause the immune system to maintain immunologic memory."

Finally, just because your pet doesn't need annual vaccinations doesn't mean you can skip an annual exam for him. Pets age more rapidly than humans, and an annual exam is important for catching problems early.


The scoop on

dogs eating poop

Q: My dog, a healthy 13-year-old male German shepherd-bluetick coonhound mix, loves to eat stool droppings like candy. We live next to a conservation area with trails where others walk their dogs leash-free, as do we. He never eats any fresh droppings but finds dried ones to eat. I have done everything to stop him, short of putting him on a leash. Do I worry needlessly? -- via email

A: There's a name for that not-so-charming habit: coprophagy. It comes from the Greek words "copros," for "feces," and "phagein," meaning "to eat." For dogs and other species, it can be a natural behavior, but to humans, it's distasteful -- to say the least. Who wants to be kissed with that mouth?

We don't know exactly why animals dig poop, but we do know a few things about the tasteless habit. It's more common in dogs than in cats, and it's more common in females than in males. It's possible that females do it because it's normal for them to clean up after their pups in this way.

One theory as to why dogs eat poop is that they do it out of stress or boredom. Some people suggest that dogs who do this are lacking certain nutrients in their diet or aren't getting enough to eat. Dogs who have been scolded for pooping in the house may be attempting to hide the evidence of new transgressions. The behavior may also be in response to an underlying medical cause.

Besides the yuck factor, eating poop can result in a case of intestinal parasites. And if your dog snacks on manure from a horse recently treated with ivermectin, a common deworming agent, he could become sick.

Take him to the veterinarian to make sure the cause isn't health-related. Otherwise, since your dog seems to only eat poop that he finds on the trail, the easiest solution may be to fit him with a basket muzzle if you're unwilling to keep him on leash. -- Dr. Marty Becker

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Food truck for

Fido in Seattle

-- The food truck craze has gone to the dogs. The Seattle Barkery, owned and operated by Ben and Dawn Ford, rolls out such popular pet treats as air-fried chicken feet and duck neck, bacon "pupcakes," a canine ice-cream sundae -- served in an edible bowl with bacon sprinkles -- and a peanut butter and banana bone, to name just a few. Ingredients are, of course, human-grade and frequently organic. Humans can order their own separate treats -- and coffee, because this is Seattle -- but dogs are the primary customers.

-- The leading infectious cause of death in young cats is feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), caused by a virulent feline coronavirus. A vaccine for FIP is available, but it has little to no efficacy and isn't recommended by the American Association of Feline Practitioners. But a new treatment reported by Kansas State University researchers in the journal PLoS ONE may block the virus from replicating and stop the disease from progressing. The cats in their study recovered fully after treatment with an experimental antiviral. The authors report, "We found that antiviral treatment led to full recovery of cats when treatment was started at a stage of disease that would be otherwise fatal if left untreated."

-- Lucca, a U.S. Marine Corps German shepherd, saved thousands of lives through her patrol work in Afghanistan, where her job was to sniff out explosives. Where she was on the job, no human casualties occurred. But on her final patrol, she discovered a 30-pound bomb. During the search for additional explosive devices, one detonated. Lucca survived, but at the cost of her left front leg. Now she has become the first Marine Corps dog to receive the Dickin Medal, an award for animal bravery in wartime service created in 1943 by animal welfare pioneer Maria Dickin. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker


Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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