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vaccines for pets

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By Matthew Kearns, DVM 

COVID-19 has brought into focus just how a pandemic can cripple society on so many levels and how important vaccines are in our lives today. Developing a safe and effective vaccine against COVID-19 has become the “holy grail” of human medicine. 

Vaccines are defined as a biological preparation of weakened or killed microorganisms, or portions of the DNA of these organisms (viruses, bacteria, or rickettsiae) to stimulate the immune system to prevent or ameliorate disease. 

The word “vaccine” comes from the Latin, vacca, which means “cow”, because the first vaccine was actually derived from cowpox. Dr. Edward Jenner, an English physician that lived in the 1700’s, discovered that humans inoculated with the fluid from the blisters of cowpox helped prevent the development of smallpox. Since that time vaccines have been used to prevent disease, as well as the development of new vaccines to prevent or treat cancer. 

How do vaccines work? 

Puppies and kittens are born without an immune system. The protection they receive comes in the form of maternal antibodies (antibodies from the mother) in colostrum (the first milk from the mother). These antibodies are absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract into the newborn puppy or kitten and these maternal antibodies protect them for the first four weeks of life.  

After the first four weeks of life the protection from maternal antibodies declines and they will have to develop their own immune system to fight infection. Unfortunately, there is a window (between the ages of four to eight weeks) from when a puppy or kitten gradually loses protection from maternal antibodies, BUT before their own immune system begins to develop and is able to start to fight infection. That is why veterinarians recommend keeping puppies and kittens away from other dogs and cats before they start the vaccinations. Many infections can be very serious (eg., parvo, distemper, rabies, feline leukemia, etc.) and possibly fatal if the kitten or puppy is exposed before they have adequate immunity to it.  

The goal of vaccines is to administer them before our pets are exposed to the infection naturally but after the pet has the ability to use the vaccine. This means at an age where the puppy or kitten have lost a majority of the protection from their maternal antibodies yet old enough for their immune system to use the vaccine to fight infection (ideally between the ages of eight to nine weeks). 

Administering vaccines before eight to nine weeks is controversial because maternal antibodies can interfere or inactivate the vaccine and the puppy or kitten will receive little (if any) protection. Don’t worry. There are established vaccination protocols for a pet of any age. 

Remember during these difficult times to not forget about the health of our four-legged family members. Call your veterinarian’s office to make sure your dog or cat is up to date on their vaccines.

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine. Have a question for the vet? Email it to [email protected]s.com and see his answer in an upcoming column

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By Matthew Kearns, DVM

Dr. Matthew Kearns

This second of a two-part series continues to discuss if vaccines are necessary for your pet and, if so, how often. The first article, from June 18, gave a brief overview of the immune system and how vaccines work. In this article I hope to more specifically address which vaccines are necessary and why. 

There are certain core vaccines that are recommended or required. Core vaccines protect against diseases that are so prevalent in the environment that your pet is at risk for exposure even if they do not go outside or are legally required by the county and state. Noncore, or “at risk,” vaccines vary from pet to pet depending on where they go and interactions with other pets or wildlife. 

We also take into account multipet households where some pets venture outside and are in contact with indoor-only pets. Certain vaccines are required on a regular basis by boarding facilities, groomers, doggy day care and group obedience classes. Be sure to let your veterinarian know if your pet participates in any of these activities. 

Can too many vaccines hurt your pet? The answer to that question is, “Not if not given all at once.” Two large studies (one involved over a million dogs and the other involved almost 500,000 cats) focused on what are termed vaccine-associated adverse events (VAAE). VAAE refers to serious, even life-threatening vaccine reactions. 

VAAEs are rare (less than 1 percent) and neither the number of vaccines a pet receives throughout its life nor any particular type of vaccine increases that risk. What the study did find was the risk of a VAAE increased significantly in patients under 22 pounds when they were given multiple vaccines at the same visit. The take home of these studies was we can vaccinate our pets for whatever they are at risk for as long as we don’t treat a Chihuahua like a Great Dane. Stagger the vaccines by a week to a few weeks in smaller patients. 

Is your pet ever too old for vaccines? Age never plays a role in vaccinating but underlying disease does. If your pet has developed any organ dysfunction, glandular diseases or cancer, talk to your veterinarian about vaccinations. Vaccinating pets with underlying disease is contraindicated (a no-no). Not only won’t these pets use the vaccines to their advantage, but this is also an added stress they do not need. However, if you have a healthy, older pet, they should receive any vaccines against any infections they are still at risk for exposure to regardless of age.  

Are there alternatives to vaccinating annually? There are certain vaccines that need to be given annually to be effective. For other vaccines, yes, there are alternatives. One alternative is to ask your veterinarian to run antibody titers instead. As discussed in the first article there are blood tests to measure the effectiveness of one component of the immune system, the humoral component. 

The other alternative is to use vaccines that are approved for longer than one year. Just remember that Suffolk County does not recognize the difference between a one-year versus a multiyear approved vaccine when it comes to boarding.

I hope this opens the door to a healthy discussion with your veterinarian at your next visit.  

One last thing: Even if you do not vaccinate your pet every year, I still recommend an annual checkup or exam. It is true that one human year equals about seven dog years and about five and a half to six cat years.  

Dr. Kearns practices veterinary medicine from his Port Jefferson office and is pictured with his son Matthew and his dog Jasmine. Have a question for the vet? Email it to [email protected] to see his answer in an upcoming column.