Caitlin UltimoHealth / Wellness

Which Vaccines Prevent Common Dog Diseases?

Vaccinations are vital for helping to prevent common dog diseases. There are so many dog vaccines now, it can be confusing for pet parents. How do you decide what’s right for your pet? The best thing you can do, in addition to seeking expert guidance from your veterinarian, is to educate yourself on vaccines, the dog diseases they prevent and the potential for your pet to encounter those diseases.

Dog Vaccines Basics

A vaccine is an injection of pieces of dangerous viruses and bacteria, or non-virulent strains of them. Vaccines teach your pet’s immune system to recognize dog diseases and reactive protectively against them.

To maintain a high level of protection, most dog vaccines require additional injections, often called “boosters,” typically at yearly intervals or every three years.

Newborn puppies get short-lived antibodies from their vaccinated mother’s milk, which protects them for the first 6 to 8 weeks of life. During this time, it is important to give puppies their initial vaccines, then boost them every 3 to 4 weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age, when their immune systems are functional and protective.

As puppies enter adulthood, their mature immune systems require boosters on a less frequent basis.

Choosing the Right Vaccines for Your Dog

Before deciding which vaccines are right for your pup, you need to know about the most common dog diseases we vaccinate for and the risks they pose to your pet. Veterinarians generally consider three factors before recommending dog vaccines:

  1. The severity of the dog diseases.
  2. The pet’s lifestyle—Not all infectious diseases require direct contact with another dog; for some, simple exposure to the urine, feces or other secretions of dogs previously inhabiting the same space may result in infection with some pretty nasty (if not fatal) diseases. For example, if your pet goes to daycare, dog parks or is kenneled for any reason, he will likely come in contact with other dogs, and not all have been properly vaccinated.
  3. The price of the vaccine series versus the cost of treating the disease in your pet.

Let’s look at some common vaccines, the dog diseases they protect against and signs that your dog needs this vaccination.

Rabies Vaccine

The rabies vaccination is mandatory in all 50 states, and pet parents cannot travel with, board or even groom pets without a current vaccine. Rabies is a fatal and horrible disease that is untreatable and can be transmitted to humans.

Dogs should receive their first rabies vaccination no earlier than 3 months of age. After that, get your pup vaccinated again a year later and then at three-year intervals. A current rabies tag and vaccine records will protect you in certain scenarios, like if your pup gets involved in a scuffle with another dog or rambunctious play with a stranger. Besides being responsible pet parenting, it’s the law.

Canine Distemper Vaccine

More infectious than rabies, canine distemper also is fatal and transmissible to other pups. This virus damages the affected dog’s immune system, allowing a range of infectious diseases to take hold, and generally resulting in death by pneumonia, severe diarrhea or both.

Canine distemper typically is packaged with several other viruses in a single vaccine, which is administered every 2-4 weeks between the ages of 6 weeks (when the mother’s milk-transmitted antibodies start to wane) until 16 weeks (when the pup’s immune system is fully functional and ready to take over).

A booster shot usually is given one year after the vaccine series is completed, and every three years after that.

Canine Parvovirus and Parainfluenza Vaccine

Most distemper vaccines contain subunits of canine parvovirus (parvo in dogs is a devastating diarrheal disease that still claims many puppies and unvaccinated adults) and canine parainfluenza, a non-fatal respiratory virus that opens the door for other agents to attack the lungs.

Combo vaccines with these components have been available for many years and are considered “core” (or absolutely necessary) throughout a dog’s life.

Bordetella Bronchiseptica Vaccine

Well known as the agent of “kennel cough” in dogs, this bacterium is present wherever dogs congregate. Many boarding kennels and groomers require this vaccine for good reason. Not all dogs harboring this bacteria are coughing, yet they still can spread the bacterium in the respiratory secretions to unvaccinated animals.

This is very much a lifestyle-based vaccine; if pets routinely encounter other canines in dog parks or daycare, the vaccine is strongly recommended. Bordetella bronchiseptica is not just a canine disease—it affects a variety of mammals and can be transmitted to other household pets.

Leptospirosis Vaccine

Leptospirosis is a disease caused by several similar bacteria that can cause mild to severe diseases in dogs, often resulting in kidney infection. It is spread by urine and carried by several rodent species, which can contaminate food or water. This is another of the common dog diseases that can be transmitted to humans.

Though the incidence of this disease may be regional and is less common now thanks to the effectiveness of vaccine programs, many canine distemper vaccines include up to four types of Leptospira known to cause dog diseases.

While not a core vaccine, it’s a very important one. 

Lyme Disease Vaccine

A bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi causes Lyme disease in dogs as well as in humans, and the vaccine is based largely on the pet’s location and lifestyle. Because Lyme disease is spread by ticks, dogs who enjoy long walks in the woods with their parents are at risk.

Certain parts of the country—including the Atlantic coast from New England to Virginia as well the upper Midwest—have a higher incidences of Lyme disease in dogs, concomitant with a greater population of the ticks that transmit the disease. This means that dogs in these areas frequently enjoy the outdoors and need this vaccination.

Your vet may also recommend preventative prescription flea and tick treatments.

Rattlesnake Vaccine

Yes, there is a vaccine for the bite of one of the country’s most venomous pit vipers: Crotalus atrox, the Western diamondback rattlesnake. It doesn’t mean that dogs and rattlesnakes can play together safely, but this vaccine will lessen the damage and number of fatalities associated with encounters.

Another lifestyle vaccination, a Chihuahua in Vermont who spends most of his life in your arms in Vermont probably doesn’t need this vaccine, but your adventurous outdoor dog might benefit from the added protection.

Dog Vaccines Risks

Vaccines today undoubtedly are safer and more effective than ever before, but it’s important to know the small risks they can present.

Mild Fatigue or Discomfort

Most animals receiving vaccination from a licensed vet never show a single adverse symptom. Like some people, some dogs show mild fatigue or malaise for a day or two following the vaccination, especially with vaccines that contain inactivated harmless viruses that need to multiply in the body to generate a protective effect.

Allergic Reactions

One uncommon effect in some dogs is anaphylaxis, an allergic reaction that typically occurs within 30 minutes of receiving a vaccination.  This allergic reaction is usually more distressing than dangerous and responds well to epinephrine and steroids. If your dog experiences this type of reaction, make sure your vet notes it in his record.

To prevent future reactions with subsequent vaccinations, consult your vet about administering an antihistamine first, and thoroughly review upcoming vaccinations.

Documented Immune System Diseases

Some dogs have documented diseases of the immune system, which can impact future vaccinations and should be discussed carefully with your vet.

There is a tremendous amount of truth to the old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” You will sleep much better at night knowing that you, your pet and your family are protected by your choice of proper vaccinations to insure a long and healthy life for your dog.


Dr. Bruce Williams is 1985 graduate of the University of Georgia. In addition to his day job as a veterinary pathologist of 26 years, he also has written countless articles and book chapters on all facets of diseases of domestic animals and is currently the CEO of the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of veterinary and comparative pathology, the C.L. Davis and S.W. Thompson Foundation.

Featured Image: VP Photo Studio/Shutterstock.com

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