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Which Vaccines Are Most Essential for Dogs?

Is there a basic timeline or vaccination schedule for puppies? What boosters do dogs need as they age?

Melvin Peña  |  Mar 15th 2016


As is the case with a human infant, bringing home a new baby puppy often means making a series of visits to a health care provider, particularly in the first year of life. While there are certainly a standard set of standalone immunizations, like the rabies vaccine, there are also convenient multivalent shots, which can protect a puppy from a range of dangerous illnesses.

It’s also important to consider that where you live and what kind of regular contact a dog will have, not only with other dogs, but with his environment, go a long way to determining which vaccines are most essential to health and well-being. Of course, not all dogs are adopted at 8 weeks of age, traditionally when they have been weaned and have received natural antibodies from their mother through nursing.

what shots are necessary for dog and when

When do puppies get their first shots? Around 6-8 weeks of age. (Photo via Pixabay)

What shots are necessary for a dog?

There are handy, fairly standardized puppy vaccination schedules, but what shots are necessary for a dog and when they are administered is, finally, less significant than making sure a dog gets the ones that are best suited to her. In your dog’s first visit to the veterinarian, discussing your pet’s home environment and likely outdoor activities can help establish which vaccines the dog needs. Among the topics we’ll investigate here:

  • Essential vaccinations
  • Puppy shot schedule
  • Multivalent vaccines
  • Boosters and follow-up shots for older dogs

Essential or core vaccines

Core vaccines are those that the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) deems essential for all dogs, not only for their own health and longevity, but also as a matter of public safety. In its most recent iteration, published in 2011, the AAHA Canine Vaccination Task Force determined that vaccines against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, and rabies to be the most crucial. Of all available vaccines — and there are many — the one that is actually required by law in many places is the rabies vaccine.

Whether your dog is a puppy, has reached maturity, or is a senior dog, any canine with an unknown or unverifiable vaccination history should receive the core vaccines, both for their own good and to minimize, if not eliminate, the risk of spreading preventable and deadly contagious illnesses to others. Non-core vaccines, those against bordetella, Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme disease), leptospirosis, canine parainfluenza, coronavirus, and measles are left to the dog owner and veterinarian’s discretion.

Puppy shot schedule

If you do adopt a baby puppy, freshly weaned from the maternal teat, the general rule of thumb, no matter what reputable resource you consult with, is that the puppy should receive a series of three essential vaccinations. How old do puppies have to be to get shots? All sources agree that immunizations can begin at 6 to 8 weeks of age. These are only generally agreed upon guidelines, and you’re not a bad puppy parent if your veterinary appointments aren’t kept exactly on this schedule, or don’t include the non-core vaccines.

what shots are necessary for dog and when

A current rabies vaccine is absolutely essential for dogs of all ages. (Photo by m01229 on Flickr)

The American Kennel Club has a thorough puppy vaccine schedule chart, detailing their advanced recommendations, which include non-core immunizations. The AKC advises a series of veterinary appointments at 6 to 8 weeks, 10 to 12 weeks, 12 to 24 weeks, 14 to 16 weeks, and another at 12 to 16 months of age — five visits in total. How many shots do puppies need? The AKC’s first year guide comes out to a total of 20 jabs. A few years ago, Dogster posted its own puppy shot schedule, coming up with a less arduous regimen of three visits and three to four shots, including the rabies vaccine.

Multivalent vaccines: DHPP, DA2PPC, and DHLPP

If three to four shots sounds more manageable than 20, that’s because of multivalent, or polyvalent, vaccines. These are sometimes referred to as 4-in-1 or 5-in-1 combination vaccines. Each of these puppy shots bundle three of the four core vaccines together, with the exception of rabies, which requires its own vaccination. What does each of the combo vaccines offer immunity against?

  • DHPP: distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus
  • DA2PPC: distemper, two strains of adenovirus (one of which causes hepatitis), parvovirus, and parainfluenza
  • DHLPP: distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus

The Dogster puppy immunization guide linked above recommends DHPP, which is a common and trusted vaccine option. The combination vaccine you and your veterinarian select may depend on risk factors for your particular dog or environmental factors specific to your region.

Booster shots and vaccinations for older dogs

There is no end of debate over the necessity for booster shots. Traditionally, the recommendation was for dogs to receive annual boosters, but there wide variations now in the effectiveness and lasting power of a given vaccination. If you opt for a combination vaccine, the AAHA recommends a booster when a dog reaches her first birthday, then a top-up every three years thereafter. What about older or even senior dogs?

what shots are necessary for dog and when

Your vet may recommend vaccines for dogs based on your location. (Photo via Shutterstock)

“Every three years” means for the remainder of their life. As Dr. Marty Becker recently wrote, there is always a risk, however slight, that even a vaccinated dog might not develop full or sufficient immunity to a specific contagion. Other factors include the shelf-life of inoculations and the natural loss of vigor and immune system integrity that accompanies advanced age. Immunities developed in early life may lapse if not maintained.

Determine a vaccination schedule that fits your dog’s needs

One final consideration to bear in mind when it comes to scheduling vaccines and boosters for baby puppies and senior dogs is that all vaccines are not the same in terms of their effectiveness. Some vaccines offer a longer period of protection than others. Bordetella and Leptospirosis vaccines may require yearly jabs; of course, where you live and whether you’re in a high-risk area or your dog is exposed to them with greater frequency makes a huge difference.

Consult with your veterinarian to see exactly what vaccine-preventable diseases are reported most often in their local practice over the past several years. They will be most knowledgeable about the risk factors, not only in your specific area, but also about the needs of your individual dog. With this combination, dog owners can make the most informed and rational decisions about what shots a dog needs during the course of a long and healthy life.

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a two-year-old female Bluetick Coonhound mix named Baby, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.