To vaccinate or not to vaccinate?

Dog owners have long faced conflicting recommendations from their veterinarians, breeders, groomers and friends about this controversial issue. Many dog owners are led to believe that getting every yearly vaccine their veterinarian recommends is the best way to keep their dog healthy, and they’re sometimes left to feel like bad owners if they don’t. Sadly, it is often the opposite.

As an emergency veterinarian for over 18 years, I have seen, first hand, the effects of over-vaccination. One of the saddest results is geriatric dogs that get vaccinated and, three weeks later, are brought to me with life ending immune-mediated hemolytic anemia. These are dogs that should never have been vaccinated at their age, whose lives have been cut short because of something we elected to do to them. Vaccines are not required by law (with the exception of rabies*). Why, then, are dogs getting so many unnecessary vaccines?

There is an exponential amount of cancer and chronic disease in our dogs, and vaccines are partly to blame. Vaccine-site cancerous tumors have been well documented in both cats and dogs. These vaccine-related tumors are oftentimes terminal. Likewise, I see severe allergic reactions to vaccines on a regular basis. Dogs that have such reactions should NOT be vaccinated in the future…ever. Yet, I see the same patients the following year for the same reaction, but worse. These dogs become more susceptible to immune-mediated disease in the future.

Canine relatives living in the wild are not dealing with diabetes, excessive cancer, severe skin allergies, and an alarming amount of other endocrine disorders. We are doing something wrong and must step back to evaluate how we care for our best friends. Although vaccines are just one area of care we must change, they remain a major culprit in the widespread maladies our companion pets are facing.

In humans, we get our vaccinations at a young age, and then have lifelong immunity from most diseases. Why, then, do we continue to vaccinate our dogs every single year for their entire lives? The core vaccines have been proven to be effective for 7–15 years.

The United States Department of Agriculture and the drug companies put forth the initial recommendations for annual vaccination. It’s always a red flag when the companies profiting from the product are involved in setting the guidelines—these recommendations were not science-based.

Veterinary medicine has continued to recommend annual vaccines because that’s the way it’s always been done, despite scholarly and clinical studies that indicate a change in protocol is necessary. And, while this may not be a popular truth, it is profitable for the veterinarians to vaccinate yearly.

Let’s not forget Big Pharma.

From Dr. Karen Becker, “The profit of Veterinary vaccine sales amounted to more than $3.2 million in 2004 and have risen seven percent per year since 2000. This figure is projected to exceed $4 billion in 2009. Six companies account for more than 70 percent of world veterinary vaccine sales. The market leader is Intervet, with sales of almost $600 million in 2004 and multiplying at an alarming rate—all at the expense of the animals who are entrusted in our care. The United States has by far the largest share of the national market with revenues of $935 million, and Japan comes in second with $236 million.”

From the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) 2003 – Current knowledge supports the statement that “no vaccine is always safe, no vaccine is always protective and no vaccine is always indicated. Misunderstanding, misinformation and the conservative nature of our profession have largely slowed adoption of protocols advocating decreased frequency of vaccination.”

According to an article from WSAVA global veterinary community, “The situation with respect to canine core revaccination has changed so rapidly that it would now be considered ‘off-label’ to administer a vaccine with a triennial licence annually.” In short, giving yearly the core vaccines that have been licensed as a 3-year vaccine such as distemper, parvo, and rabies is considered off-label.

Another alarming fact is that toy breed dogs are given the same dose of the vaccine as giant breed dogs. It is well-documented that small breeds are more likely to have reactions to vaccines. I’m not going to give my toy breed patient the same dose of antibiotic as I give my giant breed patient, so why would you do it with vaccines? This seems like common sense to me.

Some may classify my perspective as “anti-vaxxer”, but I am fully aware that some vaccines are, of course, necessary. I have deep respect for scientists who have developed much needed vaccines that have saved both human and animal lives. Parvovirus is an example of a life-threatening virus that can easily be avoided with proper vaccination. However, there is a difference between proper vaccination and over-vaccination, and in my nearly two decades in practice, I have seen far too many tragedies directly resulting from unnecessary vaccines.

A vaccination protocol should be tailored to your particular pet taking into account your pet’s genetic background, travel history, current condition, geographic location and individual lifestyle.

If you have a trusted veterinarian who has been recommending multiple vaccines every year, please consider some things before you get upset. Many veterinarians are following what their mentors or schools have taught them. They have not had the opportunity that I have working in the ER and seeing the side effects of over-vaccination first-hand. They are likely genuinely concerned for your dog’s welfare and are doing everything they believe that they should to keep him healthy. Another possibility is that they work for a corporation and are following protocols set forth by businesspeople. Full disclosure, I was this vet for a short period in my career. I worked for a corporation and followed their guidelines for vaccination. I sat through seminars and phone conferences listening to drug reps tell me why I needed to give these vaccines and what horrible things would happen to my patients if I didn’t. Every time I gave the list of vaccines, I felt sick inside. I knew that I was not helping my patients and that I was likely hurting them. Hence, I didn’t last long in that job and swiftly moved back to emergency medicine.

So, it is your responsibility as your dog’s guardian to be his advocate. Do your research to find the right veterinarian for you and ask questions. If your veterinarian is not open to a discussion about vaccines and titers (bloodwork done to assess sufficient immunity to a disease) then find a new veterinarian.

*check your state’s laws regarding rabies

It is important to know the difference between Core and Non-Core vaccines.

Core vaccines include:

  • Rabies
  • Distemper
  • Parvovirus
  • Adenovirus (Canine Hepatitis)

The Non-Core vaccines include:

  • Bordetella (kennel cough)
  • Lyme Disease
  • Leptospirosis 4-way (this is sometimes included in combination vaccines with core vaccines, but it is a non–core vaccine and should be considered separately)
  • Canine Influenza
  • Parainfluenza
  • Adenovirus Intranasal

Here is my recommended vaccine protocol. I may tailor this based on the individual dog:

  • 8–10 weeks-distemper/parvo combo (this may need to be 1–2 weeks sooner if the mother’s vaccine status is unknown or if her titer is low at the time of whelping)
  • 12–13 weeks-distemper/parvo combo
  • 16–17 weeks-distemper/parvo titer. If titer is low then repeat distemper/parvo vaccine.
  • 6 months – rabies vaccine. Discuss rabies detoxifying remedies with your local holistic vet to be given prior and post vaccination
  • 1 year titer for distemper/parvo (preferred) or give 3 year distemper/parvo. Give 3 year rabies vaccine
  • Perform vaccine antibody titers for distemper and parvovirus every three years thereafter. Vaccinate for rabies virus according to your state’s law. Find out if a written waiver from the primary care veterinarian and a sufficient titer is adequate in your state.

Yearly or bi-annual examinations are still very important in maintaining the health of your dog.

Do not miss these appointments because you are not vaccinating.

Non-core vaccines—this is a separate and extensive issue. The individual dog must be considered when deciding whether or not to administer these vaccines. I do not recommend vaccinating for non-core vaccines unless there are extenuating circumstances. Please look for my upcoming article explaining reasons included in this category.


There are a few different options for checking your dog’s titers. My hope is that it will be common practice for veterinarians to carry and offer the in-house tests.

  • Dr. John Robb offers inexpensive titering at his website, He charges $55 for rabies only, $80 for rabies plus distemper/parvo/adenovirus and $50 for distemper/parvo/adenovirus.
  • Vaccicheck
  • TiterCHEK