Preventative medicine is one of the factors in our domestic animals living longer, healthier lives. Vaccination protocols are not only good for each individual animal’s longevity, but annual to triennial (every three years) boosters go a long way to protecting the population – offering herd immunity by eliminating deadly diseases and protecting those unvaccinated pets with compromised immune systems. The adoption of pet vaccination protocols for the last 100 years has ensured a great reduction in canine and feline disease, and will continue to do so, as long as pet owners continue to have their pets vaccinated.

This article sheds light on pet vaccination – what’s in these shots, how they work, the diseases they prevent, and when they should be administered.

How do pet vaccines work?

When the vet injects your six-week-old kitten or puppy with their first core vaccination, they are receiving pieces of the viral or bacterial disease-causing pathogens. It’s not enough to make them sick, but is just enough to rouse their immune system to prime itself, developing antibodies to fight these pathogens. This immune response prepares the immune system to respond should the animal be exposed to the disease later in life.

With each booster vaccine, a little more of each pathogen is given to the pet, allowing the immune system to strengthen progressively, until the young animal is ready to go out into the world and face potential exposure to these diseases. If they are exposed to the pathogens, their immune system will be strong enough to fight back, lessening the chance of serious disease and death. With each passing year, the animal needs a booster to ensure their immune system remains robust enough to fight off serious pet diseases, which we will unpack below.

Puppies and kittens receive three initial vaccines and then a booster after six months or a year. Depending on where you live and what your pet will potentially be exposed to, the vet will recommend either annual boosters or an additional shot given every three years. The vet will never recommend a booster unnecessarily – they will base their recommendations on your location, your pet’s lifestyle, and on the vaccine manufacturer’s label.

Vaccination is intended to stop deadly diseases that have no cure, and which tend to spread quickly. At a minimum, pets should receive their core vaccines: the 5-in-1 for dogs, 3-in-1 for cats, and the legally-mandated rabies vaccine.

What’s in the 5-in-1 dog vaccine?

When the vet refers to the core vaccination for dogs, they are talking about the 5-in-1 vaccine that protects puppies and dogs against these viruses and deadly diseases:

  1. Canine distemper
  2. Canine parvovirus (CPV)
  3. Canine adenovirus (infectious hepatitis)
  4. Canine adenovirus Type 2 (infectious tracheobronchitis or respiratory disease)
  5. Canine parainfluenza virus

1. Canine distemper

Pet rescue organisations and kennelling facilities shudder at the thought of canine distemper – a highly contagious dog disease that spreads quickly among dogs that are housed in close quarters. It can be airborne, spread by direct contact, or from pregnant dogs to their puppies. This virus attacks multiple body systems at once: the gut, the lungs, brain and spinal cord, the skin, as well as mucous membranes.  

Canine distemper symptoms include:

  • high fever
  • vomiting and diarrhoea
  • appetite loss
  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • nose and eye discharge
  • eye inflammation
  • thickened paw pads and nose

The dog’s immunity is weakened by the distemper virus, which puts him at risk of secondary infections in the gut and respiratory system. If the disease progresses, it will attack the central nervous system and present symptoms such as:

  • seizures
  • paralysis
  • head tilt
  • muscle contractions/twitching
  • lack of coordination
  • repetitive eye movements
  • death

There is no cure for distemper, but if the disease is diagnosed early enough, supportive care is given to treat the symptoms. It can take months before any side effects of distemper subside.

2. Canine parvovirus (CPV)

‘Parvo’ is one of the biggest disease risks for unvaccinated dogs and young puppies. The virus is transferred through direct contact with an animal with the disease, their faeces, as well as any viral material on objects like food bowls, leashes and toys. A person who touches a dog with parvo can also infect another dog (without themselves being affected). This virus primarily attacks the gastrointestinal tract, but can also migrate to the lymph nodes, bone marrow and heart.

Canine parvo symptoms include:

  • vomiting and bloody diarrhoea
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • appetite loss
  • dehydration
  • weight loss
  • secondary bacterial infection

There is no cure for parvo, so supportive care is given to puppies and dogs to treat their symptoms. They can recover well if the parvo is diagnosed and treated early enough; although they do remain contagious for almost two weeks after recovery. Recovered puppies must be quarantined from other animals until after this infectious window.

3. Canine adenovirus (CAV)

Canine hepatitis is the disease caused by the canine adenovirus, which attacks the liver and kidneys. It is contracted by contact with the urine, eye and mucosal discharge of an infected dog. Treatment is supportive and most dogs do recover, but there is still a risk of it being fatal. Even after recovery, traces of the virus can still be found in the dog’s urine for up to six months.

Infectious hepatitis symptoms include:

  • fever
  • appetite loss
  • painful abdomen
  • coughing
  • symptoms of jaundice (yellowed sclera, mouth and skin)
  • vomiting
  • bloody diarrhoea (in unvaccinated dogs)

Supportive treatment is offered to reduce the symptoms of the disease, but even after recovery, some dogs will experience side-effects for the rest of their lives. They may be affected by kidney disease as well as problems with their eyes.

4. Canine adenovirus Type 2 (CAV-2)

The second canine adenovirus (CAV-2) attacks the respiratory system of the dog and is responsible for kennel cough, also called infectious tracheobronchitis. It can also attack the GI tract and central nervous system (CNS).

Symptoms of tracheobronchitis include:

  • cough
  • mucoid discharge
  • lung infection
  • symptoms associated with the CNS

Kennel cough needs to be treated supportively, but if it is not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner, it can cause pneumonia and quickly become fatal.

5. Canine parainfluenza virus (CPIV)

Canine parainfluenza is a virus similar to distemper, but instead of attacking multiple body systems, it focuses on the lungs and respiratory system. It is also part of the canine infectious respiratory disease complex that causes kennel cough, but while some dogs present with respiratory symptoms and fever, others are completely asymptomatic.

Symptoms of parainfluenza include:

  • coughing (wet or dry, productive or non-productive)
  • blood present in sputum
  • nasal discharge
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite

Dogs that do not show any symptoms of illness still carry and can spread the disease, which is why vaccination against canine parainfluenza is so crucial. In most cases, the vet will diagnose parainfluenza, but the animal will not need to be hospitalised – they can recover at home with supportive care, medications and isolation.

Non-core vaccination for dogs

Aside from the 5-in-1 core vaccination, there are also two non-core vaccines for dogs – those for leptospirosis and bacterial infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica, which is another of the bacteria in the kennel cough complex.

  • Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that affects the liver and kidneys, with one of the symptoms being a high fever. Dogs can get infected by wild rodents, but important to note is that it’s also a zoonotic disease, meaning that humans can contract it if they are exposed to the urine of a dog with leptospirosis. If you live in or are going to visit a subtropical climate where there are pools of stagnant water and high humidity, the vet will likely recommend vaccinating your dog for this disease.
  • The threat of Bordetella is that it is highly contagious – especially in a large population of dogs – and starts off as a mild cough, but can progress to pneumonia. As one of the bacteria that cause kennel cough, the vet will recommend this non-core vaccine for dogs that are boarded often or who frequent dog parks. If you plan on travelling internationally with your dog, the Bordetella vaccine may also be necessary depending on your destination.

What’s in the 3-in-1 cat vaccine?

It’s recommended that all cats get the 3-in-1 core vaccination, which offers protection against the top three feline viral infections:

  1. Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV) (feline distemper; feline parvo)
  2. Feline calicivirus (FCV) (respiratory and oral infection)
  3. Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV) (herpesvirus infection or feline viral rhinotracheitis)

1. Feline panleukopenia virus (FPV)

Also referred to as feline distemper or feline parvovirus, feline panleukopenia is caused by a similar virus to parvovirus in dogs, but it is still quite different to the canine disease. This contagious disease attacks the cat’s digestive tract, causing symptoms like:

  • appetite loss
  • lethargy
  • vomiting
  • bloody diarrhoea
  • dehydration
  • eye and nose discharge

It quickly destroys white blood cells, weakening the immune system and making the cat vulnerable to other infections. Panleukopenia is often fatal in kittens.

2. Feline calicivirus (FCV)

Feline calicivirus attacks the cat’s upper respiratory tract, so it can easily be spread among cat populations through sneezing. Sneezing and a sniffly nose quickly progress to pneumonia. The symptoms can include:

  • sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • inflamed eyelids
  • eye and nose discharge
  • oral ulcers
  • excessive salivation
  • fever
  • lethargy
  • loss of appetite
  • swollen lymph nodes
  • painful joints/lameness

FCV is treated supportively, as there is no cure, and medications are given at home. If the disease is not caught early, the affected cat may need to be hospitalised. However, if treatment is swift, the cat should recover without complications.

3. Feline herpesvirus-1 (FHV)

FHV or feline rhinotracheitis consists of upper respiratory infection, which can progress to pneumonia if not caught early. It is characterised by fever-like symptoms concentrated in the face and mouth, and can be spread easily through contact with FHV-infected cats.

Feline herpesvirus-1 symptoms may include:

  • nasal congestion
  • sneezing
  • conjunctivitis (feline pink eye)
  • eye and nasal discharge
  • ulcers in the mouth
  • pneumonia

There is no cure, but when FHV is diagnosed, treatment is supportive to clear the symptoms. The virus can be latent (showing no symptoms), but if the cat experiences stress and lowered immunity, it can trigger the disease without the cat needing to be reinfected by the virus from another cat.

There is always a risk of cats contracting the above diseases, but with the 3-in-1 vaccination, the severity and the duration of the disease will be reduced, and early treatment will lead to a good recovery. There are vast numbers of stray colonies in South Africa, so it’s crucial that cat owners vaccinate their pets to reduce the risk of viral diseases to their own cats.

Non-core vaccination for cats

Depending on your cat’s potential exposure to other feline diseases, the vet may recommend the vaccines for feline leukaemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV – or feline AIDS), Chlamydophila felis, Bordetella bronchiseptica and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

FeLV is particularly significant because it attacks the cat’s immune system, making them vulnerable to diseases like cancer and those that target multiple body parts or systems. FeLV-infected cats can live for a long time, but they must not be resident with FeLV-free cats. FeLV-infected cats can live together, but then it’s recommended that those whose FeLV status is unknown, or roaming cats, should be vaccinated.

The mandatory rabies vaccination

It is a legal requirement in South Africa that all domestic dogs and cats must be vaccinated against rabies. Learn more about the gravity of rabies by reading our article here. By no later than 12 weeks old, kittens and puppies must have their first rabies vaccine. They must get their rabies booster before they turn one year old, then have a rabies booster every year or every three years – depending on the manufacturer – for the rest of their lives. Our pets must get these rabies vaccines not only to protect themselves, but to also protect us. Children are especially vulnerable to rabid dogs, and with no cure, pet vaccination is the best way to prevent them from being exposed to the rabies virus.

Vaccination schedules

The most common question regarding vaccines is when should pets be vaccinated? Generally, puppies and kittens need to get their shots at the following intervals:

  • Core vaccines are given at six weeks, nine weeks, and 12 weeks. Boosters are given at six months old, or one year of age. Thereafter, core vaccine boosters are given either every year or every three years, depending on the manufacturer’s recommendations or the vet’s determination based on your pet’s lifestyle and location.
  • Rabies vaccines are given at three months, 12 months, and every one to three years for the rest of the pet’s life.
  • Non-core vaccines – where highly recommended – should be given at six, nine and 12 weeks of age, then annually.

Vaccination protocols are one of just many reasons why your pet should see the vet for an annual check-up. Among many other screenings, you’ll be able to discuss your pet’s activities with the vet, who will then be able to make a recommendation for whether your dog or cat needs their next shots.

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