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Veterinarians and Vaccines: A Slow Learning Curve

By Nancy Kay DVM, March 2013, Updated August 2022

According to an article in Veterinary Practice News, approximately half of veterinarians continue to over-vaccinate their adult canine and feline patients by administering “core” vaccinations annually. This is in spite of the fact that for over a decade now, it has been public knowledge that these vaccines provide a minimum of three years’ worth of protection— if not more.

Current canine and feline guidelines recommend that adult dogs be vaccinated against distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus, and adult cats against panleukopenia virus, herpesvirus, and calicivirus no more than once every three years. Bear in mind that these are not rules or regulations (although I wish they were) they are simply recommended guidelines. With the exception of rabies (mandated by state governments), veterinarians can vaccinate as often as they please.

The risks of over-vaccinating

What’s the downside to your pets receiving three-year vaccines once every year? My concerns extend far beyond wasting your money. (Please pause for a moment while I step up on my soapbox!) Vaccinations are so much more than simple shots. They truly qualify as medical procedures because each and every inoculation is associated with potential risks and benefits.

While adverse vaccine reactions are infrequent and most are mild, every once in a while, a vaccine reaction becomes life-threatening. As with any medical procedure, it is only logical to administer vaccination if the potential benefits outweigh the risks. Giving a three-year vaccine once a year defies this logic in that the patient is exposed to all the risks of the procedure with absolutely no potential benefit. How in the world does this make sense?


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Why do some vets continue to over-vaccinate

According to the Veterinary Practice News article, there are two reasons why approximately half of veterinarians continue to over-vaccinate. First, they believe, as I do, in the importance of annual health visits for dogs and cats. They also believe that the lure of a vaccine is the only way to convince their clients of the need for a yearly exam, and for good reason. In 2011, the “Bayer Veterinary Care Usage Study” documented that many people continue to believe that vaccinations are the only reason to bring their overtly healthy pet in for a veterinary visit.

Another possible explanation is that some veterinarians remain unaware of current vaccination guidelines. If so, they must be living under a rock which begs the question, why would you want such an “outdated” individual caring for your pet’s health?


What you can do

Here are some things you can do to prevent over-vaccination.

Stand your ground

If your vet insists on administrating core vaccinations to your adult pets every year, share a copy of current canine and feline guidelines. You may need to agree to disagree and/or find yourself a more progressive veterinarian. Remember, you are your pet’s medical advocate, and you have the final say so.

Request a Titer Test

A titer test is a simple blood test that can confirm if your dog's previous vaccine is still providing necessary protections. This helps reduce the risks of potential infectious diseases and over-vaccination.

Continue Annual Check-Ups

Bring your pets in for a yearly checkup, whether or not vaccinations are due. I cannot overstate the importance of an annual physical examination for pets of all ages. It’s a no-brainer that the earlier diseases are detected, the better the outcome. The annual visit also provides a time to talk with your vet about nutrition, behavioral issues, parasite control, and anything else that warrants veterinary advice. Enough people bringing their pets in for annual wellness exams may convince more veterinarians to revise their vaccine protocols in accordance with current guidelines.

To learn more about vaccinations, I encourage you to read “The Vaccination Conundrum” in Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life.

How frequently are your adult pets receiving their core vaccinations?

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Nancy Kay, DVM, Dipl., American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is a 2009 recipient of AAHA's Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award and author of Speaking for Spot.