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All you need to know about pet vaccinations

We all love our pets. They are our companions, protectors, and loyal friends. We want to see them happy, playful, full of energy, and thriving with life. We feed, walk, and take care of them to ensure they have all they need to develop properly. As caring pet owners, one of our main responsibilities is to watch out for our pet’s health. The last thing we would want is for our pets to fall ill. This is where vaccinations play an essential role in preventing unnecessary and risky diseases.

Whether you are a dog or cat owner or both, keeping vaccinations up-to-date is crucial in maintaining your animal’s safety (as well as that of your family), as some animal diseases can be transferred to humans.

So what are pet vaccinations all about? What are the risks? What are the benefits? Are they the best thing to do for your pet’s health and yours?

About pet vaccinations

Pet vaccines exist to prevent your pet from falling ill. They provide immunity from a range of infectious diseases that can affect both humans and animals.

In order to be effective, vaccines need to contain an agent similar to the microorganism that causes the disease. Once injected, this agent stimulates the body’s immune system, allowing the body to recognise it as a threat. The immune system will then attack the foreign agent and remember it so that in the future, should the body encounter the same disease, the immune system will be prepared to fight it off.

It is essential to know that vaccines work better in a healthy and relaxed animal. It usually takes around seven days for the body to respond and develop immunity. Therefore, giving a vaccine to your pet while it is already sick will be less effective. Vaccines do not work as a cure for diseases, but rather as a prevention.

The importance of vaccines

Keeping your pet’s vaccinations up-to-date is crucial for a healthy lifestyle and proper pet development. It is recommended that you schedule at least one yearly veterinary appointment for your pet – for a general check-up and the chance to implement a vaccination program.

The necessity of vaccination against specific diseases depends on different factors including the age, medical history, lifestyle, and habits of your pet. In addition, while some pets need to be vaccinated every year, others will only need to receive vaccines for particular diseases once every three years.

Types of vaccines

There are two categories that pet vaccinations are divided into: core and non-core vaccines.

Core vaccines, according to the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), are those which every dog or cat must receive, no matter their age, environment, habits, breed, or circumstance. Core vaccines help prevent animals from contracting life-threatening diseases that have a global distribution.

Non-core vaccines are those required based on the context in which the animal lives. These include geographic location, environment, and lifestyle.

The WSAVA identifies a third classification of non-recommended vaccines. These are vaccines that have no sufficient scientific evidence justifying their use or effectiveness. In this case, it is better that your pet goes without the vaccination rather than take any risks.

How often should my pet be vaccinated?

While it was common practice in Australia to have your pet vaccinated every twelve months, new studies have shown that some vaccinations are effective for over a year.

The waiting period between each vaccine will depend on your pet’s age. If your pet is a puppy or kitten, they will usually be vaccinated three times in a period of six months, and after that, it could be yearly or even triennially top ups. In most cases, core vaccines are administered every three years, or even longer if the animal’s conditions and environment support it.

Given the fact that each animal should be treated as a unique being, it is a good idea to take your pet to a Vet and have a vaccination protocol prescribed catering to your pet’s specific requirements. Good communication and annual visits with your Vet are both essential for your pet’s health.

When should I start vaccinating my pet?

If you have kittens or puppies, the first round of vaccinations (usually two or three vaccines), are given at around six to eight weeks old. The final vaccine, however, should not be given before your pet turns sixteen weeks. This is because the antibodies in the mother’s breast milk can interfere with the vaccinations.

To check if your adult dog or cat needs a vaccination, a titre test can also be conducted. This is an affordable test that will measure the amount of antibodies present in your pet’s system, revealing if there is a need for an immunity booster. Your Vet can provide you with more information on titre tests.

Side effects or adverse reactions

Because vaccines stimulate the animal’s immune system, minor reactions may sometimes occur afterwards. The most common of these occur within the first few hours following vaccination and include allergic reactions, sensitivity of the vaccinated area, and fever, and these symptoms generally pass within a day or two.

Less likely side effects that may occur include an immune disease related to the vaccine, or small granulomas (tumours) at the injection site. These granulomas should be monitored carefully.

If you see your pet experiencing any of the following symptoms for more than two days, take them to the Vet immediately:

  • weakness
  • breathing difficulties
  • vomiting
  • loss of appetite
  • diarrhoea

Uncommon side effects of vaccination can include:

  • haemolytic anaemia
  • reproductive system issues
  • temporary limping (in cats)
  • sarcomas (in cats)

Sarcomas may be one of the worst side effects of vaccination, however these tumours are mainly linked to a type of vaccine not routinely given in Australia. An early detection can result in a positive extraction of the tumour, so monitor your cat closely to ensure they stay safe.

It is important to keep in mind that these side effects are considered less risky in comparison to potentially exposing your animal to serious diseases if they remain unvaccinated. Vaccines are an essential aspect of care for household pets, and have played a key role in preventing communicable diseases and fostering early detection and treatment of medical issues.

Dog vaccinations

If you are a dog owner, you no doubt appreciate the joys of having a healthy, active dog. If you own a dog, core vaccines are considered essential. In some cases, non-core vaccines could also help in keeping your dog from falling ill, particularly if they are a social pet, live in a certain part of Australia, and are in regular contact with other dogs. It is advised to vaccinate your dog with both core and non-core vaccines, although a consultation with your Vet is necessary before making such decisions.

Core and non-core dog vaccines

In Australia, core vaccines for dogs include:

  • canine distemper virus
  • canine adenovirus
  • canine parvovirus

These vaccines are commonly grouped together in one injection called a ‘C3’ vaccine.

Non-core vaccines include:

  • parainfluenza virus
  • bordetella bronchiseptica
  • leptospira interrogans

Disease prevention

Having your dog vaccinated can help prevent them from the following diseases:

  • Canine distemper – this fatal disease attacks a dog’s nervous system and can lead to severe damage, including paralysis. Puppies and young dogs are more susceptible to this virus. Thanks to increased vaccination, the disease is not as common as it once was. However, outbreaks can still occur in areas where vaccination rates are low, so ensure your dog gets their vaccines!
  • Canine adenovirus (hepatitis) – this disease affects the liver, and subsequently the eyes and kidneys. It cannot be transmitted to humans, but is a very serious illness for dogs.
  • Canine parvovirus – this deadly virus is one of the most common viruses in the world, and is extremely hard to eradicate given that each species has a different version of it. Because maternal antibodies can interfere with the vaccine, it is important for your Vet to determine an appropriate age at which your dog should receive the vaccines.
  • Parainfluenza virus – this mild respiratory infection is usually transmitted by nasal secretion and is highly contagious. It is not fatal, but being vaccinated against this disease can help prevent your dog from getting other related infections.
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel or canine cough) – this virus causes a harsh cough and is highly contagious. If your dog is in contact with other dogs, is very young or very old, it will be more at risk of infection. It is usually recommend that the vaccine for kennel cough is given annually.
  • Canine leptospirosis – this bacterium interferes with proper organ function and can be transmitted to humans. This vaccine is usually given when your dog is young, lives in a relevant geographic area and has a higher chance of infection.
  • Coronavirus – this dangerous virus is very hard to eradicate and its symptoms are similar to those of the flu.
  • Rabies – this dangerous and very contagious disease can be fatal to both dogs and humans. It has no known cure and infected animals act as carriers. Although Australia is considered to be rabies-free, it still affects many countries in the world where the vaccine is considered ‘core’, like in the United States. Luckily, this is not the case in Australia, so the vaccine is not necessary unless your dog is planning a trip overseas.

Cat vaccinations

Cats are independent, intelligent, and highly sociable beings. When they are comfortable at home, they will let you know. Because they love to go on little excursions and have their own private time, it is vital to protect cats and ensure they are safe from catching infectious diseases. The RSPCA Australia recommends cat containment to protect both your pet and the local wildlife.

There are several vaccines available for cats, which has led to some debate about the dangers of excessive vaccination. While some Vets believe all vaccines are a good idea, others think getting too many may jeopardise your cat’s health.

It is advised to not lean towards any of the extremes. To give your cat just the core vaccines would be prudent, and to give your cat all the available vaccines may be excessive. Instead, discuss with your Vet which vaccinations are suitable according to your cat’s needs and habits.

Core and non-core cat vaccines

In Australia, core vaccines for cats include:

  • feline parvovirus
  • feline calicivirus
  • feline herpesvirus

Non-core vaccines for cats include:

  • feline immunodeficiency virus
  • feline leukaemia virus
  • chlamydia felis

Disease prevention

Cat vaccines are available for the following diseases:

  • Feline parvovirus (panleukopenia) – Also known as feline distemper, this viral disease is known to affect the blood cells in the body that rapidly divide, such as those in the intestinal tract and bone marrow. This then leads to a feline form of anemia, which makes the cat vulnerable to other bacterial or viral illnesses.
  • Feline herpesvirus – One of the most common causes of upper respiratory infections in cats, herpesvirus in felines can cause sneezing, watery eyes and nose, and congestion.
  • Feline calicivirus – This is also a common respiratory disease in felines, affecting primarily the lungs, nasal passages, mouth, and occasionally even the intestines and musculoskeletal system.
  • Feline leukaemia – this retrovirus is transmitted through saliva or nasal secretions, and can cause fatal diseases such as blood cancer (leukaemia). This vaccine is non-core, so you and your Vet can evaluate together whether your cat should or should not receive the vaccine, considering his daily routine and environment.
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) – this virus attacks your cat’s immune system, leaving them vulnerable to other infections. Similar to the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in that it can be present without symptoms for many years following the initial infection, this virus is slow-acting but can result in a severely weakened immune system once the disease takes hold.
  • Rabies – as previously mentioned, rabies is fatal, and cats are just as susceptible to catching the virus. While Australia is fortunate enough to be rabies-free, if you or your cat are considering a move or travel overseas, this vaccine could help to save your lives.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if my pet misses a vaccine?

This depends on how old your pet was when they received their first vaccine. In order for the vaccine to be effective, maternal antibodies should not be present in the animal’s system. If your pet is over a year old, a booster may not be necessary. If your pet misses a vaccine after twelve weeks of age, two boosters are highly recommended in order for the vaccines to be effective.

Should I vaccinate my pet if they have previously had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine?

In this situation, evaluate the risks with your veterinarian. It will depend on your pet and the risk level of the environment in which it is developing. You can take steps to reduce the risk of an allergic reaction, and your Vet will be best suited to advise you on how to manage disease risk if you choose to limit vaccinations.

Can I vaccinate a pregnant or lactating pet?

There are some vaccines that have been tested on lactating pets, but generally, try to avoid administering any type of medication during this period. Some vaccines cannot be given to pregnant animals, particularly ‘live’ vaccines, however there are alternatives available and your Vet can advise you on your options.

What happens if my pet’s medical history is unknown?

If your pet’s past medical background is unknown, vaccination is still a good idea. If you have a dog, the core vaccines should be administered according to your dog’s age. If they are older than four months, two vaccines are enough. If they are younger than four months, then proper vaccination protocol should be followed (two to three vaccines, with the last vaccine given not before the sixteenth week, and a booster a year later).

What is the youngest age I can vaccinate my pet?

In order for the treatment to work as effectively as possible, your pet should not be younger than six weeks when they start receiving the first vaccine.

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.