I overhead a conversation in the clinic the other day between two dog owners in which one was telling the other that this was the last time she would be having her dog’s booster vaccinations given; as after this year, she was no longer going to be using a boarding kennel for her dog.
Placing your dog in boarding kennels requires them to be vaccinated, to prevent them passing on illnesses to other dogs; but kennels have this rule for the protection of other dogs, not as an arbitrary hoop to jump through and a needless added expense!
Deciding to only vaccinate your dog so that they can go into kennels is very black and white thinking, and highly flawed. I hope that I managed to get this across to the dog owner in question when they were called for their appointment, but I guess I will find out for sure next year, when we call their dog for their annual health check and boosters!
So, why do we actually vaccinate dogs, other than so that they’ll be accepted into kennels? Read on to hear the explanation that I gave to the dog owner in my clinic.
The most obvious reason the average dog owner would give for why they vaccinate their dog is to protect the dog itself.
Vaccination greatly reduces the chances of a dog catching any of the usually serious and highly contagious health conditions that the vaccine protects against; and means that if the dog did get ill with such a condition regardless of their vaccination status, they’re far more likely to suffer from it only mildly and fight it off successfully.
For a canine health condition to be classed as one that it is desirable to vaccinate against and promote vaccination for all dogs that are able to have it, the condition needs to meet a combination of benchmarks.
These are first of all that the condition is highly likely to be contagious, making it easy for the dog to both catch it themselves, and pass on to other dogs. Often, infection with the illness is likely to make many if not most dogs that catch it very sick, to the point that it has a high mortality rate and is also likely to cause a lot of suffering to dogs that catch it too.
Being hard if not impossible to treat quickly and effectively is another factor in many cases too.
A good example of a really important canine vaccine that demonstrates all of these points is the parvovirus or parvo vaccine. Parvovirus is highly contagious among dogs and almost always fatal in puppies, as well as in many adult dogs too.
Dogs that become ill with parvo do tend to suffer a lot, and it also has a very high mortality rate in puppies, even with intensive treatment. Yet the chances of a dog catching parvo can be reduced to almost zero with vaccination.
Vaccinating gives dog owners peace of mind that their dogs are at a very low risk of some of the most serious illnesses that dogs in the UK are vulnerable to.
Vaccination is important not just for individual dogs, but also the dog population as a whole. In the UK as we’re an island, the dog population has a very defined meaning, and this level of definition and the natural borders and controls we have in place thanks to this contributes to how we were able to eradicate rabies from the UK, for instance.
Vaccinating the majority of dogs in a population helps to protect not just the individually vaccinated dogs, but the dog population as a whole; including those that have not been vaccinated themselves.
This is known in some cases as what we call “herd immunity.” If one member of a herd cannot be vaccinated but the others all can, and are, that unvaccinated herd member is at a very low risk of catching a disease that’s been vaccinated against in others nonetheless.
This is because vaccinated herd members (in this case, our dogs) serve as a firebreak that reduces the chances of the infection or condition spreading through the population and so eventually, reaching the unvaccinated member.
Ironically, the concept of herd immunity often gets twisted by anti-vaccers, or people who don’t think that dogs should have or need vaccinations; including those that think they’re protecting their dogs “homoeopathically” with unproven (or often, proven ineffective) remedies instead of vaccinations.
They will commonly point at the fact their unvaccinated dogs haven’t got sick as evidence that vaccines are not needed, or that their alternative to vaccination has worked; when in fact, their dogs are simply benefitting from the advantages bestowed on them by herd immunity, in the form of others vaccinating their own dogs.
This is something that not all dog owners realise; vaccinating dogs can protect people too! Not all, but some of the contagious health conditions that can affect dogs are zoonotic to humans; which means that we can catch them, or a human form of them, from dogs.
Additionally, some canine diseases that are not transmissible to people can cause risks to people in other ways. like if the condition causes diarrhoea and therefore ups the level of exposure the dog’s owners have to faeces when clearing up, raising the risk of faecal-borne illnesses.
Everything mentioned above about how vaccinating dogs can help to protect people also applies in terms of the protection of other species of animals too, for all the same reasons.
There are a number of canine health conditions that can be passed to some other pet (And wildlife) species as well; cats and ferrets generally being the most common.
Ferrets, for instance, can catch canine distemper from dogs, and get acutely sick from it; but this is something we vaccinate dogs against as standard, thereby protecting ferrets too!