Dog vaccines – which does yours really need?

These days, there are lots of vaccines available for our dogs. When parvovirus emerged in the 1970’s, thousands of dogs died from what was at the time a horrible “mystery virus.” Veterinarians and pet owners cheered when an effective vaccine against this deadly disease was produced! That vaccine alone has saved thousands of lives. As more and more vaccines came out, every vet pretty much would give every shot to every pet, every year. These days we have a lot of vaccines going into our pets.

Then experts in our field began to realize that we were seeing an increase in the frequency of reactions to the vaccines. Further studies later showed us many of these vaccines last much longer than the originally-thought one year.

dog and cat vaccines

Soon a new “anti-vaccination” movement started. Vaccines can potentially cause reactions in dogs and cats, and very severe ones, while incredibly rare, can potentially be fatal if not treated aggressively. We also suspect that vaccines may be related to some (very rare) auto-immune diseases in dogs. So no more vaccines ever, right?

We need to be smart about vaccines. These suckers do save lives! They can also be over-used, and I’m going to provide the facts you need so you and your veterinarian can decide which vaccines your individual pet needs.

The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) and AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) both researched and debated this issue for years. They agreed on recommendations of vaccines that are considered “core” and “non-core.” The core vaccines are recommended for all dogs, and may be even required by law. Non-core vaccines are needed for some patients, but not all, as determined by that pet’s lifestyle, health status, and potential risk. They also took another step and even have vaccines that are not recommended. Ouch.

Core vaccines for dogs:


This vaccine is required by law in all 50 states. Since 2012, all 50 states now also recognize the 3-year as well as the 1-year shot. Because rabies is a zoonotic and fatal disease (meaning people can get it – then die) law requires the vaccine must be given by a veterinarian. Fortunately, the rabies vaccine is very well tolerated in pets. I recommend keeping all pets current on this vaccine (every 3 years isn’t so bad). Why? Yes, it’s the law. But, while the chances of your dog actually contracting rabies are slim to none, your pet needs the paper trail. All it takes is one person to accuse your dog of biting them – a bite does not even need to happen! Depending on your local animal control, they can make life really un-fun, or be reasonable. If your dog is current on his rabies vaccine, you show that proof, keep him at home for 10 days, then go see a vet on day 10 who signs a form that your pet is non-rabid. Not a huge deal. Sure beats fines and quarantines!

DHP – Distemper, Hepatitis (adenovirus), Parvovirus

The most important component of this 3-part vaccine, to me, is parvovirus. That is one very contagious virus that can kill despite aggressive and expensive treatment. And I swear, that crap is everywhere! Despite there being an effective vaccine, I treated parvo case after parvo case when I was working in a clinic in a depressed area. People thought they couldn’t afford a $10 vaccine, and dogs paid with their lives.

The other two components are important, and considered core as well. Distemper is a virus we are seeing more and more in wild raccoons. Your dog can have a run-in (or even indirect contact with a sick raccoon’s secretions) and get very very sick, even die. The vaccine is effective, so why chance it? The final component, Hepatitis, or adenovirus, can cause liver disease, but is also associated with respiratory diseases (coughing, pneumonia, etc). Adenovirus has been linked to kennel cough outbreaks.

This vaccine is available as a combination, or as the separated components, and are available in both 1 year and 3 year formulations. I, of course, like the 3-year kinds.

Those are the four core vaccines that are recommended for all healthy pets. Yes, if your dog has life-threatening vaccine reactions, these can be avoided, but these dogs are the teeny tiny minority. The benefit of these vaccines far outweighs the risk of reaction in the vast majority of dogs.

Non-core vaccines – recommended for some dogs, not all:


This vaccine protects against one of the bacteria associated with kennel cough. It is available as an injection, an oral liquid, or a squirt up the nose. Buzz-kill: It does not prevent your dog from getting kennel cough! It may help them not get it so bad. Here’s an entire article about kennel cough and the bordetella vaccine. It is often required by boarding kennels and doggy day cares. I also suggest it for dogs who frequently visit dog parks or go to groomers – places where there are multiple dogs together. The vaccine is labelled for one year, but some kennels require it to be given every 6 months. This topic is currently being debated in our field. For now, I just do what the kennel wants so Fluffy doesn’t get kicked out.


This is often included with the DHP shot (or DAP shot, as some call it), making it the DHPP, or the DAPP (it’s the second P). It can also sometimes be combined with the bordetella vaccine, which makes a lot of sense. Why? Parainfluenza is another virus associated with kennel cough. There are many many viruses and bacteria that can cause or be involved in kennel cough, and parainfluenza and bordetella are only two of them. Also, to be clear, parainfluenza is NOT canine influenza – the dog flu. That’s a whole different virus and disease altogether.


Some vet clinics give this to every dog regardless of their lifestyle. It is sometimes combined with the DHPP shot, making it the DHLPP shot (AKA – a “5-way” shot). More and more vets are starting to ask the owners questions and decide which dogs actually need this vaccine. If your dog is at risk, it is worth getting! This vaccine is only available as a one year, as the duration of immunity is not very long. Lepto is a complicated issue, so I have written an entire article just on lepto here.

Canine Influenza (AKA Dog Flu)

Some boarding kennels and doggy day cares are requiring this vaccine. Much depends on if the virus has been identified in your area. For instance, kennels and vets in the Chicago area, which experienced a significant outbreak in spring of 2015, are recommending the vaccine for any dog who engages in “social” activities, such as groomers, dog parks, boarding, etc. If dog flu has not been identified in your area, or if your dog hardly ever leaves the house, you likely do not need this vaccine. I have written an entire article about canine influenza and its two vaccines here.

Lyme disease (Borrelia Burgdorferi)

I personally do not recommend this vaccine unless you live in a very very Lyme endemic area (like Lyme, Connecticut). Why? Ticks carry a variety of diseases, and Lyme disease is just one of them. I practice in the St. Louis area, and Lyme disease is virtually non-existent here. The main disease living inside our local ticks is Ehrlichia, a disease similar to Lyme disease. No vaccine exists for Ehrlichia. Other diseases, such as Anaplasma and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, can be transmitted by ticks as well. No vaccine exists for any of these. So why would you vaccinate for just one of the many diseases that your dog can get from ticks? You’re better off using effective tick protection! That way your dog is protected from all those diseases. Doesn’t that just make more sense? Skip the Lyme shot. Use tick protection. Here’s an article on Ehrlichia and Lyme disease.

beagle and westieVaccines not recommended by AVMA and AAHA:

Corona virus

This virus causes mild disease in very very young puppies. Other disease syndromes caused by coronavirus are actually prevented from the parvovirus vaccine, which is a core vaccine. Not very many clinics even stock the coronavirus vaccine any more. If they do, it will be in combination with the DHPP, often called a DHPP-C.

Dental vaccine

This was manufactured briefly, with the hopes that reducing the bacteria load in dogs’ mouths would reduce the number of extractions needed when they need a dental cleaning. It is no longer being manufactured. Never really took off, but you may have heard about it.

Distemper-Measles combo

Turns out the vaccine against distemper (which is core) is really all you need in regards to measles. I do not know any vets who stock the distemper -measles combination vaccine, since it’s not worth doing.

A note on titers:

Finally, what if you want to try to extend the core vaccines to beyond 3 years? With rabies, that’s a no-go. Because the government is involved, just follow the law. The only exception is if your pet has life threatening vaccine reactions, or is otherwise too ill for a vaccine. Your veterinarian can help you with those.

You may have read about “titer checking” online. Briefly, this involves sending a blood sample to the lab, and they test the blood for antibodies to the specific vaccine. If the antibodies are at a high enough level, they will consider your dog’s immunity to be sufficient and not need vaccination. Titer testing is not perfect. Some experts say dogs can have immunity even with low antibody levels, while others say antibodies are only one piece of the immune system puzzle, and protection is not guaranteed. I’ll write an entire article about titers in the future, but wanted to at least acknowledge it. And yes, I have patients who use it. 🙂


  1. My wife and I were thinking about getting a dog, and we know very little about what needs to be done. I had no idea that you can actually over use vaccines. It’s great that they are out there to protect your dog, but I wouldn’t want them to hurt them.

  2. I have a three year old Westie with dry eye. It is heart breaking for him and us. Not to mention the thousands of dollars spent on eye clinics and medications. I have had some friends sa to have his eyes removed because he would not have pain. What is your opinion on this? Also, I think the breeder has to take part of the responsibility for not having the parents tested. Actually I think he is a puppy mill. But do you think it is a breeders responsible to test the parents before they breed knowing it is a common hereditary issue with Westie ? Do you know of any clinics or such that give financial aid for this kind of thing? I’m a senior and live on a very tight budget. The meds have cost over two hundred dollars on some months. They have about ten drops in some of them that has to be used twice a day. Anything you can point to me would be a great help . Thank you and thanks for your site.

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