Unless a vaccine reaction is strong and immediate, most people – and a shocking number of vets – don’t report the reaction. The 2007 World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) Vaccination Guidelines say there is “gross under-reporting of vaccine-associated adverse events which impedes knowledge of the ongoing safety of these products.” Former FDA head, Dr. David Kessler, says “only about 1% of serious events are reported to the FDA.” He was referring to drugs for people; reporting of pet drug reactions is likely to be far worse.
How prevalent are reactions?
In 2007, approximately 6500 reactions were reported for the canine rabies vaccine alone. If as suggested only 1% of reactions were reported, approximately 650,000 reactions likely occurred.
In my article Vaccinating Small Dogs: Risks Vets Aren’t Revealing, I summarized a shocking 2005 study which reported: Young adult small-breed neutered dogs given multiple vaccines per office visit are at greatest risk of an adverse reaction within 72 hours after vaccination ... and the risk increases with each subsequent vaccine given. Reactions studied ranged from hives to shock and even death. Although the less a dog weighs, the more likely the reaction — all dogs are at risk when multiple vaccines are given.
What can you do to keep your dog from reacting badly to a vaccine?
* Vaccine labels say to vaccinate “healthy animals only.” Whenever possible, postpone vaccinating pets experiencing any health problem – including allergies, skin problems, intestinal problems or stress. Don’t vaccinate dogs with autoimmune immune problems, cancer, seizures or other serious conditions. Never vaccinate a dog undergoing anesthesia, or in the several weeks before and after surgery or moving to a new home.
* Don’t automatically re-vaccinate. Get a simple blood test called a titer test. Repeated doses of the same vaccine increase the risk of reaction. In another study, the risk of allergic reactions has been reported to increase after three or four injections of a vaccine.
* Stop giving unnecessary vaccines. Parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus-2 are the only shots recommended for all dogs by virtually every veterinary organization and school. All others are for special circumstances only; many are ineffective and may cause reactions (including death).
* Whenever possible, vaccinate under the supervision of a holistic vet trained in homeopathy. At least, give the homeopathic remedy Thuja (Thuya) when vaccinating with most vaccines. Use Lyssin for the rabies vaccine. If your vet isn’t skilled in homeopathy, you can get instructions and remedies at naturalrearing.com.
* NEVER allow your vet to give multiple vaccines during one visit – especially to your small or medium-sized dogs. Important: a combination shot (like DHLPP) goes in with just one needle prick but contains multiple vaccines – sometimes as many as 7. Add Bordetella and you’re up to 8.
* “Vaccines should not be given more often than every other week, even when different vaccines are being given,” says WSAVA. Three to four weeks in between is even better.
* Dr. Patricia Jordan, vaccination expert and author of Mark of the Beast says to ask for a thimerasol-free (mercury-free) vaccine. Merial makes a thimerasol-free one- and three-year rabies vaccine. Look for “TF” in the brand name.
* Insist your vet use monovalent, or at most, bivalent vaccines – even if you have to buy them yourself. Monovalent vaccines contain only one bacteria or virus. Bivalent vaccines contain 2. (See our article on combo shots for links to monovalent and bivalent shots.)
* When possible, vaccinate puppies and test for strong titers as long as possible prior to spaying or neutering. (Make sure growth plates are mature before the surgery.)
* Avoid vaccinating animals with histories of vaccine reactions. Report any reactions to your vet so you’ll have a record. Apply for a health exemption to rabies vaccination.
* Take great care when vaccinating animals from breeds or families (especially littermates) with known reactions.
* Don’t vaccinate puppies under 8 weeks of age, except when faced with an epidemic. (Early vaccination is dangerous and may not work because of maternal immunity.) Pet vaccination expert Dr. Jean Dodds’ protocol begins at 9 weeks. Dr. Ron Schultz recommends beginning at 15 weeks, giving one shot of DAP (distemper/adenovirus-2/parvovirus), then testing titers two weeks later.
* Avoid the leptospirosis vaccine (the “L” in DHLPP combos). WSAVA says: “This product is associated with the greatest number of adverse reactions to any vaccine.” The 2006 American Animal Hospital Association Canine Vaccine Task Force reported: “Routine vaccination of toy breeds should only be considered in dogs known to have a high exposure risk.” Vets and breeders suggest the incidence of “severe anaphylaxis” in puppies under 12 weeks of age and small-breed dogs is high. I’ll add that they should make sure that the vaccine protects against local strains of disease. It often doesn’t.
* Most veterinary drugs are weight dependent, but vaccines aren’t. A toy breed puppy and an adult Mastiff get the same size shot. Many vets believe this causes reactions in small dogs, so they split the dose. Vets can legally split any vaccine except rabies.
When interviewing pet vaccination expert Dr. Jean Dodds for my book, she told me that a split dose works well, and that the USDA told her that manufacturers make vaccines up to ten times more powerful than necessary (because vaccines are harmless?). There’s also supporting evidence for splitting doses from numerous human studies. To ease your own mind, two weeks after the final shot, have a titer test done to make sure the shot gave immunity. Why don’t drug manufacturers offer split doses for small dogs? Dr. Dodds told me: “You cannot change dosing label recommendations without another new licensing trial, so that will never happen. Except for rabies, where the whole vaccine must be administered by law, any veterinarian can elect to give less than a full dose to a small or very small dog, as long as there is written informed consent on file from the owner.” If you want a split dose, but your vet fears it isn’t safe or worries that you might file a complaint if it doesn’t work, offer to sign that “letter of informed consent.”
I asked Dr. Dodds for clarification: “For dogs of breed types weighing less than 12 pounds as adults, in parvovirus 2-c [CPV 2-c] endemic areas, I’d give a half dose of parvo vaccine at 6 weeks. Then for all parvo endemic and non-endemic areas, ... 3 weeks later [give] a half dose of distemper + parvo, then repeat it 3-4 weeks later. Then give rabies 3-4 weeks after that. You don’t need to measure titers after that, as this protocol should work well. For larger pups, the dose should be a full 1 ml each time.”
WSAVA, however, warns: “The volume (e.g. 1.0 ml) as recommended by the manufacturer generally represents the minimum immunizing dose, therefore the total amount must be given.” Clearly, experts disagree.
If I wanted to give a split dose, I’d prove the immunity by giving a titer test two weeks after the final shot. It may not be necessary but it would put my mind at ease.
* Drs. Stephen Blake and Dr. Jordan both recommend giving colostrum when vaccinating (or forever). My dogs get a medical grade super colostrum called IgG 2000 DF from Xymogen.com. I take it myself. You can also find colostrum at Dr. Blake’s website or at your health food store. Dr. Jordan also suggests you give Pawier vitamins when vaccinating. She adds: “All of the dogs that Dr. Blake has seen with parvo and distemper and kennel cough were all VACCINATED dogs ... the vaccine is not a guarantee, that is the point.” Dr. Blake told me that himself.
As an added precaution, vaccinate your dog early in the day (preferably when the clinic will be open for a few days afterwards). Stay near the clinic for several hours and watch for changes in health or behavior after the shot throughout the day. Check for reactions during the night.
Report all reactions to your vet immediately, and ask him/her to report the reaction to the manufacturer. If your dog has trouble breathing or moving, or if he gets hives or his face swells, get to an emergency vet right away. If you’re worried about your dog at all, call your vet or an emergency clinic and ask if you should come in. (Make sure you know how to get to your nearest emergency clinic — just in case.)
Report every health change within six weeks after the shot even if you think it’s not related. (Okay, a broken leg won’t be a reaction, but trouble walking or a change in behavior may be.) Ask the vet to report the reaction to the manufacturer and follow up! Get a copy of your dog’s file and keep it safe. This is important in case you ever want an exemption to vaccination for rabies.
Please read Vaccinating Small Dogs now to determine if and when your dog is at risk, which reactions were reported and more. Really. Read it now!
Jan Rasmusen is the author of Scared Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care