One might think that veterinary medicine is just about treating sick and injured animals, but actually a large amount of our work is dedicated to keeping animals healthy. The tools that we use to do this are wellness exams, education on topics such as nutrition and housing, protection from parasites, and vaccinations. Vaccines are some of our most powerful tools in preventative animal health.
Vaccines are medications given to stimulate the immune system of an animal to increase the body’s ability to protect itself from disease. They are either very, very small doses of the live infectious organism that stimulate the immune system without causing the disease, or a dose of a killed infectious organism that can’t cause the disease. Typically, live vaccines give better protection in a shorter time frame.
Vaccines are very expensive to develop and only work with certain diseases. Diseases that are targeted for vaccine development usually cause very serious illness and/or are very contagious, affecting a large population quickly. Vaccines can stop an animal from suffering from the disease altogether or minimize the symptoms of the disease. Another benefit is that they stop the animal from being able to spread the disease to other animals. This means that protecting your animal with vaccinations protects other animals around it, and the effect of the vaccine is amplified through this ‘herd immunity’.
Not all vaccines are appropriate for every animal. It is part of a veterinarian’s job to assess which vaccines are necessary based on where an animal lives or travels to, and the diseases present in those areas. We use guidelines prepared by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association Vaccine Guidelines Group that uses vast amounts of research to create their recommendations. These guidelines help us determine which vaccines to use, at which age they are required, and how frequently they need to be given to provide the most reliable protection. Not all vaccines require yearly administration, and it is not desirable to over-vaccinate a pet. Another source of information that we use is the Animal Health Centre and other North American reporting centres’ reports on disease distribution. This allows us to decide, for example, that vaccinating for Canine Flu is not a necessary vaccine in our area unless a dog is travelling to risk areas found mostly in eastern North America. Keeping up to date on changing disease distribution and changing guidelines help us protect more of our patients, while minimizing unnecessary vaccines.
Reactions to vaccines are a question that we deal with on a regular basis, and they certainly do happen. In a 2005 study (by Moore et al published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association) they found the equivalent of 15 reactions in 10,000 vaccines given. This included even mild reactions such as sleepiness and inappetence in the first 24 hours, as well as the more severe reactions of anaphylaxis. It is important to also remember that these types of reactions can also occur with wasp stings, spider bites, or any exposure to an allergen. The vast majority of reactions noticed by owners are easily treated, as with other allergic reactions. It is important for veterinarians to be informed of any vaccine reactions so they can treat them as necessary, possibly adjust future vaccine decisions for your pet, and report the reactions to build the database of information and assist in future vaccine production and guidelines.
Every medication, vaccine, food or other element that we put in our body comes with a risk of reaction, but that does not mean that they should be avoided at all costs. Sensible, educated decision-making based on the benefits to the individual and the population as a whole in comparison to the potential side effects is important. Your veterinarian is a very important part of creating your pet’s vaccine protocol to help you provide that ounce of protection to avoid the pound of cure.
Dr. Katharine North has been a resident and active participant in the Fort St. John community since her family immigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as a child. Dr. North spent many hours at the North Peace Veterinary Clinic as a student and joined the practice as a veterinary associate upon graduation.