Pet Vaccinations: Give your pet’s health a shot

Given the right love, nutrition, stimulation and care, modern pets can live long and healthy lives – certainly longer than they did just 30 years ago. However, one of the key contributors to pets’ longer lives is preventative medicine: vaccination. Vets not only recommend vaccinations to ensure the good health of individual pets; they do so for the sake of herd immunity – eliminating deadly diseases from the population altogether. Thanks to vaccinations, there has been a great reduction in the prevalence of certain canine and feline diseases, but these are still present and a threat to those pets who are unvaccinated or have weak immunity.

In this article, we’ll explore why vaccinating your pets is so crucial (and a legal requirement in the case of rabies), how vaccines work, which diseases are targeted by vaccination, and what the vaccination schedule is for dogs and cats.

How do pet vaccines work?

When puppies and kittens are six weeks old, they should receive their first core vaccinations. These vaccines contain parts of the virus or bacteria (pathogens) that causes the disease, challenging the pet’s immune system to prime itself with antibodies to fight the pathogen if/when they are exposed to it later in life. As the puppy or kitten receives each subsequent vaccine in their vaccination programme, more of the pathogen is introduced to the animal’s body, and the immune system arms itself a little more to fight infection by the pathogen in future. This does not mean that the dog or cat will never be exposed to the virus or bacteria, but rather than if/when it is, the animal’s immune system will attack the pathogens with antibodies, and the effects of the disease will not be as severe as if the animal were not protected from them at all.

After the first three vaccinations in the kitten or puppy protocol, they should receive a booster after six months or a year. Some vaccines require an annual booster, although some boosters are only required after three years. Veterinarians will not recommend boosters unnecessarily, and will determine each individual pet’s booster schedule based on their unique circumstances and location, as well as the recommendation on the manufacturer’s label.

Vaccines are provided for deadly diseases that cause severe illness, spread quickly and easily, and/or which have no cure. There are different types of vaccines for different diseases, and the vet will recommend which vaccines your pet should receive based on your location, your pet’s lifestyle and the likelihood of your pet being exposed to the various diseases. All pets should at least receive the core 5-in-1 for dogs, or 3-in-1 for cats, as well as the vaccine for rabies.  

What does the 5-in-1 dog vaccination contain?

The 5-in-1 vaccination protocol is considered a core vaccination and will protect puppies and dogs against the following viruses and their deadly diseases:

  1. Canine distemper
  2. Canine parvovirus (CPV)
  3. Canine adenovirus (infectious hepatitis)
  4. Canine adenovirus Type 2 (infectious tracheobronchitis or respiratory disease)
  5. Canine parainfluenza virus

1. Canine distemper

Canine distemper is a highly infectious and contagious viral disease that spreads easily among dog populations. It’s caused by an RNA virus that is spread by inhalation, direct body contact or through the placenta – from bitch to puppies. Distemper affects multiple body systems simultaneously: GI tract, respiratory tract, brain and spinal cord, mucous membranes and skin.

Dogs with distemper will show symptoms such as:

  • high fever
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • appetite loss
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • nose and eye discharge
  • eye inflammation
  • thickened paw pads and nose

Since the virus will weaken the dog’s immune response, he will be vulnerable to secondary bacterial infection in the GI tract and respiratory system. Later stages of the distemper disease will affect the central nervous system, so neurological symptoms will present, such as:

  • seizures
  • paralysis
  • head tilt
  • muscle contractions/twitching
  • lack of coordination
  • repetitive eye movements
  • death

Canine distemper is incurable, but the symptoms may be treatable when it’s diagnosed early enough. However, many dogs suffer side effects of the disease for months after it’s been treated.

Canine parvovirus (CPV)

Canine parvovirus, or ‘parvo’ for short, is a highly contagious virus that attacks the digestive tracts of young puppies and unvaccinated dogs. Parvo is transferred by direct contact with infected animals, or the objects (like toys and leashes), faeces or food bowls of infected dogs, as well as direct contact with someone who has been in contact with an infected dog. Symptoms of parvo are usually concentrated around the GI tract, but can include bone marrow, lymph nodes and the heart.

Dogs with parvo will show symptoms such as:

  • vomiting and bloody diarrhoea
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • appetite loss
  • dehydration
  • weight loss
  • secondary bacterial infection

While there is no cure for parvovirus infection, the puppy will be treated symptomatically. If caught early enough, the recovery rate for parvo puppies is good, but they remain infectious for up to 10 days after their symptoms have cleared, so additional precautions must be taken to ensure they do not infect other animals around them.

Canine adenovirus (CAV)

The canine adenovirus causes infectious canine hepatitis, acutely affecting the liver and kidneys. It can be fatal, but given enough supportive treatment, most dogs will recover without complications. The virus can still be shed in the recovered dog’s urine for up to six months after treatment.

Dogs with infectious hepatitis will show the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • appetite loss
  • painful abdomen
  • coughing
  • symptoms of jaundice (yellowed sclera, mouth and skin)
  • vomiting
  • bloody diarrhoea (in unvaccinated dogs)

There is no cure for infectious hepatitis, so treatment is supportive. Even if dogs recover, some may experience lifelong side-effects of the disease, such as eye problems or complications with their kidneys.

Canine adenovirus Type 2 (CAV-2)

Canine adenovirus Type 2 (CAV-2) is similar in structure to CAV-1, but it affects the respiratory system and causes infectious tracheobronchitis (ITB). CAV-2 is just one of the viruses responsible for the dry, hacking cough associated with kennel cough, but it may also affect the GI tract.

Dogs with infectious tracheobronchitis may show the following symptoms:

  • cough
  • mucoid discharge
  • lung infection
  • may affect the central nervous system

Infectious tracheobronchitis (ITB) is treated symptomatically, but if treatment is not pursued fast enough, it can progress to bronchopneumonia and subsequent death.

Canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV)

The canine parainfluenza virus causes parainfluenza, which is related to distemper, but attacks the respiratory system. Like CAV-2, it also causes infectious tracheobronchitis and is part of the canine infectious respiratory disease complex (‘kennel cough’), where multiple pathogens cause disease.

Symptoms of parainfluenza include:

  • coughing (wet or dry, productive or non-productive)
  • blood present in sputum
  • nasal discharge
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite

Some dogs will be completely asymptomatic, which is why vaccination is so important. Asymptomatic dogs still carry and spread the disease, so it’s better that your dog be protected to begin with. Treatment will be supportive, with dogs rarely needing hospitalisation. With vet-prescribed medications, home care and isolation, the parainfluenza should clear up in a couple of weeks.

Non-core vaccination for dogs

Over and above the 5-in-1 core vaccination, the veterinarian may also recommend that your dog receive the vaccines for leptospirosis and the bacteria Bordetella bronchiseptica, which causes kennel cough.

  • Leptospirosis is caused by a bacterial infection that attacks a dog’s liver and kidneys, giving the dog a high fever. Dogs can get it from rodents. If humans come into contact with the urine of an infected dog, it’s possible to contract this zoonotic disease. It is predominantly found in areas with a subtropical climate, characterised by high humidity, where there is lots of standing water.
  • Bordetella is another bacterial disease that starts as a cough and can progress to pneumonia. It is contagious and spreads quickly in situations where many dogs are confined in one area – hence its colloquial name, kennel cough. If your dog is boarded often or frequently visits a well-attended dog park, the vet may recommend the Bordetella vaccination. It may also be a mandatory vaccination for travelling abroad.

What does the 3-in-1 cat vaccination contain?

The 3-in-1 vaccination protocol is considered a core vaccination and will protect kittens and cats against the following viruses and their deadly diseases:

  1. Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) (feline distemper; feline parvo)
  2. Feline calicivirus (FCV) (respiratory and oral infection)
  3. Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV) (herpesvirus infection or feline viral rhinotracheitis)

1. Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV)

Feline panleukopenia is sometimes also called feline distemper or feline parvovirus, but while this virus is related to the same parvovirus that causes disease in dogs, it is still distinct from the canine variety. Like canine distemper, panleukopenia is highly contagious and attacks the cat’s GI tract, causing symptoms such as:

  • appetite loss
  • lethargy
  • vomiting
  • bloody diarrhoea
  • dehydration
  • eye and nose discharge

It causes the quick destruction of white blood cells, compromising the body’s ability to fight infection. There is no cure, so treatment is supportive, but with high mortality in young kittens.

2. Feline calicivirus (FCV)

Feline calicivirus describes a virus that infects a cat’s upper respiratory tract. The cat’s symptoms can progress from sneezing and coughing to full-blown pneumonia. It is highly contagious and spreads easily among cats, especially when they sneeze. Cats are infected through contact with other cats who already have FCV.

Symptoms of calicivirus include:

  • sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • inflamed eyelids
  • eye and nose discharge
  • oral ulcers
  • excessive salivation
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • painful joints/lameness

Since there is no cure, FCV is treated symptomatically with prescribed medications at home. Cats with severe disease may need to be hospitalised, but if your cat receives immediate treatment, she should recover well.

3. Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV)

Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV) is also called feline rhinotracheitis virus and it causes the disease viral rhinotracheitis, which is characterised by upper respiratory infection and fever, leading to pneumonia if not treated early enough. This highly contagious disease is spread by both direct and indirect contact with infected cats. There is no cure, so vaccination is utterly important.

Some of the symptoms of feline herpesvirus-1 include:

  • nasal congestion
  • sneezing
  • conjunctivitis (feline pink eye)
  • eye and nasal discharge
  • ulcers in the mouth
  • pneumonia

Once diagnosed, cats can be given supportive treatment to help the symptoms. FHV can become latent and later, when triggered by a stressful event, manifest as disease again, without the cat being re-infected with the virus.

The 3-in-1 vaccination for cats can greatly reduce the duration and severity of the disease, if your cat were to be exposed to these viruses. With the great number of stray colonies in South Africa, it’s critically important that cat owners commit to vaccinating their pets to keep viral infections low.

Non-core vaccination for cats

Aside from the core vaccines for FPV, FCV and FHV, the veterinarian may also recommend a vaccine for feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) infection. This virus targets the cat’s immune system and when it is weakened or vulnerable, the virus can lead to a range of other illnesses like cancer, which affect various systems in the body. FeLV-infected cats can live for a long time, but should not be homed with FeLV-free cats. FeLV vaccines are recommended where lots of cats live together (with varied or unknown FeLV status) and have access to outdoor roaming.

Other non-core vaccines include those for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV – or feline AIDS), Chlamydophila felis, Bordetella bronchiseptica and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

The all-important rabies vaccination

In South Africa it is legally mandated that all domestic dogs and cats are vaccinated against rabies. To read more about this fatal disease, read our rabies article here. From the age of 12 weeks old, puppies and kittens must receive their first rabies vaccine. They must receive a booster shot before their first birthday, then receive a booster either annually or every three years for the rest of their lives. Rabies not only has implications for our pets’ health, but also human health – especially that of children who are bitten by infected dogs.

When should pets be vaccinated?

Puppies and kittens are protected for the first four to six weeks of their lives by maternally derived antibodies, but after that, they will need their core and non-core vaccinations.

  • Core vaccines are given at six weeks, nine weeks, and 12 weeks, with a booster at six months and/or one year of age. Core vaccinations are then given every year to three years, consistently, for the rest of their lives, as determined by the vet.
  • Rabies vaccines are given at three months, 12 months, and every one to three years after that.
  • Non-core vaccines are highly recommended in some instances, and should be given at six, nine and 12 weeks of age, then annually.

It is critical to take your pet for a vet check-up at least once a year. During this vet visit, you’ll be able to discuss your pet’s vaccination card with the vet, who will make a determination on whether it’s time for their next shot.

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