Dogs, like people, are vaccinated against certain diseases to prevent infection or minimize the severity of infection. Vaccines are credited with lowering the incidence of certain diseases in dogs. This is one of the reasons why vets are so concerned about any controversy that surrounds pet vaccinations. If people decide that dog vaccinations are overrated, there could be a resurgence of diseases previously under control.

dog vaccinationsControversy aside, vaccinations are still the best way to protect your dog’s health over the long-term. Vaccinations are especially important for puppies because their immune systems are still developing and they are more vulnerable to illnesses in general. Most dog vaccinations are made of a combination of agents. This means fewer needles to protect against more diseases.

Dog vaccinations protect against four core diseases:

1)     Canine parvovirus

2)     Canine distemper virus

3)     Infectious canine hepatitis

4)     Rabies

Vaccinations are also available for non-core diseases. Your veterinarian can advise you on which vaccinations are recommended for your area.

Non-core vaccines include:

  • Measles
  • Bordetella
  • Leptospirosis
  • Lyme disease

We’ll take a more detailed look at the core vaccinations below.

Vaccination schedule

The first puppy vaccination is for parvovirus and some veterinarians will administer it to at-risk puppies as young as 5 weeks old.

At 6 and 9 weeks, puppies get a combination vaccine (5-way vaccine) that includes adenovirus cough and hepatitis, distemper, parainfluenza, and parvovirus. In at-risk areas, the combination is made up of 7 vaccines, and may include leptospirosis and/or coronavirus.

When puppies reach 12 weeks old, they can get their first rabies vac. The exact age is determined by local law and level of risk.

At 12 and 15 weeks, puppies get another round of combination vaccinations which include the usual 5 and may also include leptospirosis, coronovirus and Lyme disease.

Adult boosters are often given annually after the last combination vaccination. Boosters are typical combo vac, with extra protection against diseases that flare up locally. Dogs don’t always need a rabies booster vaccine annually, it depends on local law and rabies outbreaks. Dogs who live in low-risk areas may not need booster shots every year (although it can be a controversial matter). Talk to your veterinarian before you make any decisions that could adversely impact your dog’s health.

Special circumstances

If there is a sudden spate of a particular disease, especially if it’s a new strain, your dog might need an additional vaccination. If you’re travelling with your dog, you might also need to update her vaccines to protect your dog against local disease risks.

Your dog might need a vaccination against kennel cough if she’s going to spend any time boarding at a kennel. Kennel cough vaccines also provide protection against parainfluenza virus and bordetella bronchiseptica.

Dog vaccinations protect against the following diseases

Now let’s take a closer look at the four core diseases covered by dog vaccinations:

1)     Canine parvovirus

Canine parvovirus (parvo) is one of the most dangerous diseases for puppies with an estimated mortality rate of 80%. Parvo is incredibly contagious and can infect the environment for up to nine months. It’s essential that you thoroughly disinfect all clothing, bedding, bowls, leads and anything else your dog comes into contact with, including the floor, to prevent further infection and to safeguard your other pets.

Parvo spreads via contact with fecal matter, so don’t let your puppy walk in high-risk areas (like dog parks) and be vigilant about what you let your puppy sniff (and eat) while out on a walk.


Parvo symptoms include bloody diarrhea and severe vomiting, fever and dehydration. Complications include a compromised immune system, which makes pups vulnerable to other infections and heart problems, with some puppies dying of heart failure. It’s crucial to get your puppy to a vet as soon as she shows any of these symptoms because early treatment and hospitalization are vital. Early treatment is more often than not successful.

Treatment includes a drip to combat dehydration, antibiotics for secondary infections, steroids to boost the immune system and in very severe cases a blood transfusion.

2)     Canine distemper virus

Canine distemper virus is also incredibly dangerous and incredibly contagious with a high mortality rate. There is also no cure, but it can be prevented, which is why distemper vaccinations and booster shots are so important for puppies and adult dogs. There are several different strains, which present with different symptoms.

Distemper is transmitted by bodily secretions but it can also be air borne, so direct contact is not necessary for infection. Transmission is also via contact with infected items like food bowls, toys and bedding.

Distemper symptoms include fever, red eyes, discharge from eyes, nose and mouth, lethargy or depression, vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite and coughing and seizures. Seizures are usually a sign of advanced distemper and the chances of recovery are very slim. You should also look out for hardening of the skin around the nose and on the pads – hard pad strain of distemper. Early treatment is usually successful, so don’t hesitate to take your dog to the vet if you see any symptoms.

While there is no cure for distemper, it can be successfully treated with intravenous fluids, antibiotics for secondary infections and anti-seizure medication.

3)     Infectious canine hepatitis (ICH)

Infectious canine hepatitis (ICH) affects dogs’ liver and kidneys. It’s a rapid-onset disease which can cause jaundice, disorientation, bleeding disorders and even personality changes. It can be fatal but with timeous treatment most dogs make a full recovery.

ICH spreads via contact with infected saliva, blood, urine, feces and nasal discharge. Transmission is also via contact with infected food/water bowls and toys. Contaminated areas of the environment can pose a risk to other dogs for several months, so you should always disinfect anything that an infected dog comes into contact with.

ICH symptoms vary depending on the strain. It progresses rapidly, so by the time symptoms are evident the condition could already be quite advanced. You should take your dog to the vet as soon as you see any of the following: vomiting, coughing, unquenchable thirst, loss of appetite, light colored loose stools, abdominal pain, jaundice, fever and wounds not healing properly.

ICH is treatable using a drip, antibiotics, painkillers and, in severe cases, a blood transfusion. Prevention is better than cure, however, so ensure that your dog’s vaccinations are up to date.

4)     puppy-gets-a-vaccinaationRabies

Everyone has some idea of what rabies is, even if it’s only from reading (or watching) Cujo. Rabies spreads primarily through bites from infected animals. Transmission via scratches is also possible. Rabid bats, raccoons, skunks and foxes are the most common carriers. Interestingly, domestic cats are more at risk that pet dogs.

Signs of rabies usually appear 10 days to 8 weeks after the bite incident. include restlessness, anxiety, irritability and aggression. However, some hyperactive dogs show increased docility. Dogs constantly worry at the bite, licking, biting and chewing and they usually have a fever. You should take your dog to a veterinarian as soon as you notice in bite that likely came from a wild animal, but action is imperative if you notice behavior changes.

Behavior changes are usually a strong indicator of rabies and the sooner your dog receives treatment the greater the chances of recovery. If you wait until your dog becomes hypersensitive to all stimuli, prefers to stay out of the light and starts to foam at the mouth, you’ve waited too late.

Note: There is no cure for rabies once it is symptomatic, which is another compelling reason to take every bite to the veterinarian.

Note: Pet insurance helps you pay for specialist veterinary treatments and doesn’t usually cover routine treatments, including vaccinations. It doesn’t cost much to vaccinate your dog, but the costs of not sticking to your puppy’s vaccination schedule are astronomical.