By Dr. Angela Gaeto, DVM, of the Helen Woodward Animal Center community in San Diego County.
Over the years, veterinarians have seen a growing trend in clients who decide not to get their pets vaccinated. Sometimes it is the misplaced fear that the vaccines will cause more problems than they prevent but other times it is the lack of funds by the people who have acquired a new pet.
Natural antibodies in a mother’s milk…
When a puppy nurses from their mother, they receive protective antibodies through the colostrum and milk. These antibodies are only temporary, however, and do not immunize the babies against illnesses like parvo, distemper and panleukopenia for life.
What types of vaccinations are available to my pet and why are they necessary?
A series of vaccines has been developed for puppies to ensure that, as the maternal antibody levels are falling in the young pet, the vaccines begin to stimulate the young animal's own immune system. Vets give several because there is no telling from looking at the puppy what the animal’s antibody level is and when the maternal antibodies will be low enough that the vaccine will adequately stimulate the immune system.
Even if a dog receives its first vaccine at 4 months of age or older, when maternal antibodies are unlikely to be present, it still takes at least two rounds of the vaccine to adequately stimulate the immune system to provide full protection against the diseases that core vaccines were created for.
Does my pet need to be vaccinated if it is not around other animals?
Many people think, erroneously, that if they never have their dog around other animals that they are not exposed to disease. Unfortunately, any pet that travels outdoors is at risk for exposure. Human visitors who come into your home are a risk to an unvaccinated pet because they may carry the virus on their hands and clothing. Stray cats can also pose a risk to unvaccinated pets when they come around your house and sneeze on your screen door or windows. A dog may smell or lick at those areas and become inoculated with virus particles.
Another danger for unvaccinated dogs is that the parvo virus can survive in an infected environment for up to two years. If a parvo positive dog, coyote, fox etc has been in an area and vomited or defecated, even if all evidence of the feces or vomit has been washed away, your puppy will be exposed and can become sick if it chews on the grass, or plant material exposed to the virus germs. This is why veterinarians recommend puppies are not taken out to areas frequented by unknown dogs until after they have finished their puppy series of distemper/parvo vaccination.
What are the dangers of not vaccinating?
The saddest thing veterinarians see is when an owner comes in with a puppy or kitten and that animal is positive for one of the diseases that are preventable with vaccinations. Panleukopenia in cats and distemper in dogs carry a high fatality rate and treatment is often ineffective once they have been exposed to the virus. Parvo in dogs is more easily treated, and many of the affected pets can pull through, but it is a very expensive process and can take up to a couple of weeks of hospitalization in the most severe instances with the cost totaling several thousands of dollars. Sadly, when owners are asked about the pet’s vaccination history they usually reply they have not had any or only had one because they could not afford it.
Low cost vaccinations…
If you feel like you cannot afford the core vaccines, which is the viral rhinotracheitis/calicivirus and panleukopenia vaccine for cats, and the distemper/parvo/hepatitis/parainfluenza for dogs, find a vet or facility who will do low cost vaccines. Many veterinarians give a discount for the initial series in kittens and puppies. Just ask. For an initial outlay of less than a couple of hundred dollars you can avoid a potential bill of thousands or, worst case scenario, the need to put a young animal to sleep because they are suffering and cannot pull through.