Dr. Marty Becker's Tour Bus

Once we “know” something it can be hard to accept contradictory information. That’s why we still say “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” even though it has been known for years that the catchphrase was the clever work of apple growers. That’s why the idea of “yearly shots” remains the baseline for preventive pet care in the minds of many people, and they often overlook the value of regular physical exams and testing, which are critical to preventive care and can even be lifesaving for many pets.

An apple a day may not keep you healthy, but it probably won’t do you any harm. Some shots, though, can potentially cause problems for a few pets. The chance that they will is pretty small, but tailoring which vaccines your pet needs and when can make it even smaller.

Nothing in life is without risk, but we veterinarians used to think vaccines were safe enough that it was better to vaccinate whenever we had our doubts that a pet had been adequately protected. But then research showed that in some pets the negative reaction to a vaccine wasn't a day of just not feeling right. In a small but significant number of cats, the problem was more deadly: cancer.

The science, in other words, told us we needed to change what we knew.

Science Leads the Way

That didn’t happen overnight, of course, but in time veterinary schools and colleges and groups such as the American Animal Hospital Association and the American Association of Feline Practitioners gathered the research and developed new guidelines. These guidelines recommend a series of vaccinations to initiate disease resistance in kittens and puppies, followed by fewer "core" vaccines at longer intervals for adult dogs and cats, depending on their risk of exposure to disease.

When the old way was first challenged, proposed changes were controversial among veterinarians. Serious adverse vaccine reactions were (and still are) rare, and some veterinarians argued that not having a reason to bring a pet in for the wellness examinations that went with vaccinations would lead to suffering and even death from diseases not caught early. Others believed that the changes — and the reasons behind them — would lead to confusion and fear in pet owners.

In some ways the concerns were justified. Even though preventive care prevents suffering (and often saves money), yearly or twice-yearly wellness exams haven’t been as widely accepted as the idea of a yearly combination shot. That’s the bad news.

Wellness Moves Forward

The good news is that the veterinary profession is doing its best to spread the word about preventive care. Last year, for example, I took to the road in a custom-wrapped bus emblazoned with the words “Healthy Pets Visit Vets” and talked about the importance of wellness care in each of the 30 cities I visited. The American Veterinary Medical Association is taking the lead as well in making wellness a centerpiece of its pet owner education efforts.

While it’s not easy to remember, here’s what you need to know:

  • Core vaccinations: These protect against those diseases that are potentially more serious and that are everywhere, and those of which animals can be exposed to even without direct contact. These include feline calicivirus (and others) for cats, and distemper (and others) for dogs. Once immunity is established in kittens and puppies through a series of shots, boosters are given at regular intervals.
  • Non-core vaccinations: These are brought into play to help pets who have circumstances that put them at greater risk for diseases the vaccines cover, such as feline immunodeficiency virus for cats and leptospirosis for dogs.
  • Every pet is an individual: Each pet should get as many vaccines as they need, but no more than they need. Kittens and puppies need their initial series of protective "core" vaccines, but after that, what other vaccines are given will depend on regional disease threats, lifestyle differences such as indoor vs. outdoor, and a pet’s history of reactions to vaccines.
  • Rabies is a special case: Rabies vaccination is regulated by law because of the threat to human health. Almost all states now require a three-year cycle as mandatory for dogs (some clinics and municipalities even mandate that dogs get a rabies vaccine every two years), and highly recommend it for cats. Local governments may have stricter requirements, including mandatory rabies vaccinations for cats.

Any potential benefit your pet gets from these vaccine guidelines can be wiped out entirely by other health issues if you skip those wellness exams. So follow your veterinarian’s advice to set up the best preventive care regimen for your pets — including exactly which vaccines your pet needs and when.