Dear Dr. Barchas,
I have heard that some vets vaccinate animals too often. Is this true? Do pets need vaccines every year? Does every pet need every vaccine? Can vaccines cause harm to pets?
A. Young, San Francisco
Vaccines, without a doubt, are the most controversial topic in veterinary medicine today. If you gathered 100 vets in a room to discuss vaccines, there is probably only one point on which they all would agree: a certain amount of vaccination (don’t ask how much) definitely helps to prevent deadly infectious diseases in pets. After that, nobody knows for sure.
To try to make sense of the matter, lets go through some of your questions one by one.
Do pets need vaccines every year?
Probably not, but nobody knows for sure. Each pet responds to vaccination in a different way, so there is no timeframe that works for every animal. In an ideal world, it would be possible to test each pet each year to see if vaccines were needed. Sadly, that is not realistic yet.
Does every pet need every vaccine?
Definitely not. The vaccines your pet needs depend on its age, its lifestyle, and the laws in your area.
Can vaccines cause harm to pets?
In dogs, probably not, but nobody knows for sure. To date, no conclusive evidence exists that links vaccines to long term adverse health effects in canines. Cats, however, are a different story. Two feline vaccines have been associated with development of a type of tumor called sarcoma. It is especially important to discuss this matter with your vet before vaccinating your cat. However, before you decide to forego vaccines altogether for your cat, remember that the risk of the tumors must be weighed against the risk of deadly diseases (such as leukemia) that the vaccines prevent. In some cases, the risk of disease is much, much higher than the risk of tumors.
When it comes to vaccination, there are no rules that apply to all animals. Before your pet is vaccinated, talk to your vet and determine which vaccines are appropriate.
Even if you decide that your pet does not need vaccines in a given year, remember that annual (or semiannual) checkups and physical exams are beneficial for pets regardless of their lifestyle, age, or circumstances.