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There’s a growing public concern about the risks of vaccinating in both humans and animals. This school of thought, however, isn’t based on fact, and has led to outbreaks of measles in humans and panleukopenia in cats, with their associated mortalities.

This is caused due to misinformation and a lack of vaccination – even though it’s been proven that many life-threatening diseases can be avoided by vaccinating your dogs and cats. With the benefits outweighing the risks, there truly is no excuse not to vaccinate. 

Naturally, we turn to our trusted vets for advice. To err is human, and to disagree is human too. Many of our vets may not necessarily share the opinion of another down the road.

So, what do we do?

Fortunately, there is hope. The South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) and the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) have put guidelines together in order for you to make an informed decision. They’re based on current scientific knowledge and were compiled by relevant experts. Using these guidelines, we’ve put together a Vaccination Q and A to answer your questions and help you do the best for your fur-babies.

 

Why do we need to vaccinate our dogs and cats?

Vaccinations build up an immunity against life-threatening, contagious diseases for an individual. By doing so, they prevent outbreaks in populations. By stimulating the animal’s immune system with a safer/inactivated form of a particular virus, the body develops a specialised “army” which would be the first line of defence if the animal’s system was ever challenged by that virus.

Puppies and kittens get antibodies from the bitch in the colostrum which protect them after birth. However, the number of these antibodies in the puppy’s/kitten’s system decreases gradually as they get older, and by the age of 16 weeks, they will all have disappeared.

The other complicating factor is that these antibodies may disappear before 16 weeks of age and there’s no way we can know exactly when this will happen in an individual animal. This is why the vaccination protocol for puppies and kittens has been developed – To protect them despite the antibody levels dropping at unknown and variable times before 16 weeks old.
 

What are the risks of vaccinating my pets?

With any vaccination, or even dosing of medication, there’s a risk of the animal having an adverse reaction. This may range from very mild lethargy/fever to severe reactions, including hives, facial swelling, anaphylaxis, auto-immune diseases and cancer at the injection sites. That being said, the risk of these occurring doesn’t outweigh the benefit of vaccinating.

According to the WSAVA (World Small Animal Veterinary Association), only 38-51 animals for every 10,000 has a reaction after being vaccinated, and the vast majority of these are mild reactions.

 

What are the risks of not vaccinating my pets?

Your pets could contract or even die from a deadly disease. It’s heart breaking to see someone’s beloved pet die from a disease which could easily have been vaccinated against. Even though some of the diseases aren’t very common, you still need to vaccinate your pets in order to keep it that way.

“Herd immunity” is a form of immunity where a certain % of the population must be vaccinated in order to maintain protection in a community. This means that at least 70% of a population of dogs/cats must be vaccinated in order for these vaccinated pets to form a “barrier” which will prevent an outbreak. Unfortunately, in South Africa, we have a problem with the majority of the dog and cat population being unvaccinated.

 

What vaccinations does my dog or cat really need?

Dogs need the following vaccinations to protect them from the diseases listed below:

  • 5-in-1: Canine Distemper, Canine Parvovirus infection, Infectious Canine Hepatitis (Adenovirus type 1), Canine Adenovirus type 2 (a common cause of Kennel Cough), Canine Parainfluenza (another cause of Kennel Cough)
    • Most vets use this 5-in-1 combination vaccination but some use a 6-in-1 which includes the 5 viruses above, as well as Canine Coronavirus
  • Rabies 

Cats need the following vaccinations to protect them from the diseases listed below:

  • 3-in-1: Feline Panleukopenia, Feline Herpesvirus infection and Feline Calicivirus infection
  • Rabies

When should I vaccinate my dog or cat?

Dogs

  • First 5-in-1 vaccination at 8–9 weeks
  • Second 5-in-1 vaccination at 11–12 weeks; includes the first RABIES vaccination
  • Re-vaccinate 5-in-1 at 14–16 weeks; includes the second RABIES vaccination
  • Re-vaccinate 5-in-1 at one year of age
  • Re-vaccinate 5-in-1 every 3 years, including RABIES

Cats

  • First 3-in-1 vaccination at 8 weeks of age
  • Re-vaccinate 3-in-1 at 12 weeks of age; includes RABIES vaccination
  • Re-vaccinate 3-in-1 at 16 weeks in environments with high infection pressure or in breeding catteries. If not applicable, only give the second RABIES vaccination. (Ask your vet what they recommend)
  • Re-vaccinate 3-in-1 at one year of age
  • Repeat 3-in-1 every three years, including RABIES

How often should I vaccinate my adult dog and/or cat?

According to the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA), the 5-in-1 for dogs, 3-in-1 for cats and Rabies (for both dogs and cats) should be repeated every 3 years provided they received their initial set of puppy or kitten vaccinations as above.
 

How often should we vaccinate our pets against Rabies in South Africa?

Rabies is an extremely dangerous and deadly disease that affects 9-10 people in South Africa every year. In 95% of human Rabies cases, the cause was a bite or scratch from an infected dog. This is why the South African government requires you to vaccinate your dogs and cats against Rabies as per the guidelines below:

  • 12 weeks of age
  • 16 weeks of age
  • Repeat every three years

Even if your dog never goes out, it’s a legal requirement for them to be vaccinated against rabies. 

If the director of veterinary services in a province deems the Rabies threat is severe enough, he can issue a statement to the vets that advises Rabies is vaccinated against annually.

For more infomation on Rabies in South Africa click here


What other vaccinations may my pet need? 

There are other non-core or optional vaccines which your vet may recommend for your pet depending on your pet’s lifestyle, the area where you live or if your pet will be traveling. Ask your vet to help you decide on what’s best for your pet.

Dogs

  • Canine Corona virus
  • Leptospirosis
  • Herpes virus
  • Bordatella (another cause of Kennel cough)

Cats

  • Chlamydiosis
  • Feline Leukemia Virus
  • Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV)
  • Bordatella (a cause of Snuffles)

What if I don’t want to have my dog or cat vaccinated every 3 years?

According to the WSAVA, an alternative to vaccinating every 3 years is doing serological testing on them. Your vet can take a blood sample from your pet and send it to the lab to check whether they have an adequate level of antibodies to protect them from the viruses. If this is the case, and they are adequately protected, revaccination isn’t necessary. The cost of performing these tests can be rather hefty, but the option is there if you want it. This is only applicable to Canine Parvovirus, Canine Distemper Virus, Canine Adenovirus and Feline Panleukopenia virus. 

Revaccinating your cat with Feline Calici virus and Feline herpes virus should be done every 3 years or, if they are considered to be at a high risk of exposure, annual vaccination may be necessary. This applies to cats in catteries, breeding cats or cats who roam, for example.

Rabies, however, must be vaccinated against every 3 years in dogs and cats in South Africa, despite what the blood tests may say.

 

Can vaccinations cause cancer?

In cats, non-infectious vaccines like the Feline Leukemia virus and Rabies vaccines, have been suggested to be a cause of Feline Injection Site Sarcomas (FISS). There are, however, other vaccinations and injected substances which have been linked to this lethal cancer. We don’t have any data for South Africa but world-wide the chance of a cat developing a FISS is between 1 in 5 000 and 1 in 10 000.

 

Why does my vet want me to vaccinate my pet every year?

Annual vaccination has been advised for a few reasons.

Firstly - in order for the vet to perform an annual health check on their patients. Very often subtle changes in some diseases can be detected early and intervention can be implemented sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, if the dog or cat is not due for a vaccination, owners seldom bring them to the vet for a health check. In this case, the risk of missing the early detection of heart or kidney disease, for example, outweighs the risk of vaccinating annually.

Secondly - the vaccine manufacturers had proof that the vaccines’ duration of immunity was at least 1 year. But after multiple studies challenged this, it has become widely accepted practice (endorsed by the SAVA and WSAVA) to repeat the core vaccines every 3 years instead of every year, provided the patient is taken to the vet once or twice a year for a full check-up.

In South Africa, we are dealing with a largely unvaccinated population of animals. This varies between areas, but only around 10-15% of dogs and cats in this country are ever taken to a vet by their owners. Therefore, we are nowhere near the desired 70% to provide herd immunity against deadly viruses. Overvaccination has traditionally not been a major concern.

Lastly - with cats who are at a high risk of contracting Feline Herpes or Calici Virus (common causes of Snuffles), your vet may recommend that annual vaccinations are done and although they may not need the Feline Panleukopenia to be repeated annually, it is included in the 3-in-1 that your vet would keep at their practice. This is a good example of a case where you and your vet need to weigh up what’s best for your cat and make a decision from there.

The general rule is… If you’re a diligent and caring pet-parent who will take your pets to the vet for a check-up every year then there is no reason to vaccinate annually.
 

I’d love to hear if you found this useful or any other vaccination questions you may have. Pop them in the comments section below.

Dr Tanya Viljoen
After studying at Onderstepoort, Tanya worked in private practice for 4 years focused mainly on dogs and cats. She believes that the human- animal bond is a precious and essential part of life.
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