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Vaccinations – vital for us and our pets

Find out how vaccinations work, what dog vaccinations, cat vaccinations, rabbit vaccinations and ferret vaccinations protect against, when your pets should be vaccinated and lots more essential information...

As humans across the country line up for vaccinations against COVID-19, it’s important to remember just how vital vaccinations are for our pets too. Dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets all need to be vaccinated.

Burgess in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes advises: “Just like us, our pet animals need vaccinations to protect them against deadly infectious diseases. Distemper and parvovirus in dogs, feline leukaemia virus in cats and myxomatosis in rabbits were once major killers. Now, thanks to vaccination, these deadly diseases can be controlled.”

The simple fact is not vaccinating costs lives. PDSA states: “Sadly, a lot of the diseases your pet can catch if they aren’t vaccinated are fatal in most cases. Even if your pet catches one and is able to recover, they will often be left with long-term problems which can put them through a lot of pain and distress and leave you with some costly vet bills.”

Keep scrolling to find out:

  • How vaccinations work (safety, protection, side effects)

  • Which pets can be vaccinated (dog vaccination, cat vaccination, rabbit vaccination, ferret vaccination)

  • Vaccination schedules (including how much vaccinations cost)

  • The importance of regular boosters and titre testing explained

  • Older pets and vaccinations

  • Indoor pets and vaccinations

Vaccinations – one of science’s greatest hits

Vaccinations for pets in the UK are produced under very strict safety rules. The injections contain weak or partial versions of a pathogen (a bacterium, virus, or other microorganism that can cause disease). This triggers your pet’s body to produce antibodies that identify and destroy disease-causing organisms that enter the body. If animals catch the same disease in the future, their body will recognise it and fight it off much more effectively.

Why boosters are needed

The protection provided by a vaccine gradually declines and so periodic revaccination is necessary to remind the immune system to produce enough protective antibodies.

Vaccines offer valuable protection but aren’t a cure

Vaccines protect our pets from deadly diseases, but they don’t stop a virus from entering a pet’s body in the first place. Many diseases are caused by different infections or strains but vaccinations protect against the most common ones – along the same lines as the flu jab in humans, where the most common strains detected each flu season are protected against.

When your pet has their vaccines, if they come into contact with a rarer strain of a particular disease, they can still contract that strain, but usually have milder symptoms. This means they will need less treatment and will have a far higher chance of survival than an unvaccinated pet.

What’s more, when enough pets are vaccinated against a certain disease, the germs can't travel as easily from pet to pet — and the entire pet community is less likely to get the disease.

Most vaccinations are given in form of an injection, although the kennel cough vaccine is currently given to dogs via drops administered into the nose.

What about side effects?

Burgess in-house vet Dr Suzanne Moyes says: “Modern vaccines are effective at protecting pets with a very low risk of side effects. Mild reactions may include an animal being off-colour for a day or two, or tenderness and swelling at the vaccination site. Acute allergic reactions are extremely rare, but if you have any concerns, discuss them with your vet.”


Which pets can be vaccinated?

Dogs, cats, rabbits and ferrets. Currently, there are no vaccinations for other small pets. The core vaccines protect our pets from the following diseases:

  • Dogs: Parvovirus, leptospirosis, canine distemper, infectious hepatitis (CAV), adenovirus 1 and 2

  • Cats: Cat flu (FHV & FVC), feline infectious enteritis (FPV), feline leukaemia virus (FeLV)

  • Ferrets: Canine distemper

  • Rabbits: Myxomatosis, rabbit haemorrhagic disease 1 (RHD-1), rabbit haemorrhagic disease 2 (RHD-2)

Vaccination schedules

Vaccination programmes for kittens and puppies start from around eight weeks old.

  • Generally, puppies are vaccinated at eight and 10 weeks of age, and kittens at nine and 12 weeks, but the timing may vary depending upon the particular vaccine used.

  • Rabbits can have their vaccines from as early as five weeks.

  • Ferrets are usually given their first vaccination at 12 weeks, although an additional earlier vaccination may be given in high-risk cases. Yearly boosters are given to maintain immunity.

Vaccines take around two weeks to take effect, so it’s essential to keep young animals protected from contact with disease during this time.

PDSA advises: “Your kitten or puppy should generally be safe to mix with healthy, fully vaccinated pets within your own home. There is still a small risk of young pets getting germs from outside due to other pets or people bringing things in when they’ve have been out for walks, or people come to visit them. So during this time, it’s best to wash paws (and feet!) to stop any bugs being brought in. At this stage, it’s best not to take your puppy or kitten to anyone else’s house. You can start socialising them with new things and people, but it’s best to keep this at your house until they are fully vaccinated. If you have a secure garden where other pets don’t go, your puppy should be able to explore your garden straight away. If you need to take your puppy or kitten out of the house, it’s best to use a carrier or something similar so they are kept off the floor. Once they’ve had all their vaccinations, your vet will be able to advise you when it’s safe for them to go outside and mix with other pets.”

How much do vaccinations cost?

Prices can vary from practice to practice and costs will depend on which vaccinations your pet receives. Some vets offer a health care plan for your pet, which allows you to spread the cost of preventative veterinary treatment such as regular health checks, annual vaccinations and flea and worm treatments.

As a guide, Compare the Market suggests that a first set of puppy jabs costs between £30 and £60. Money Supermarket states that a kitten’s first lot of ‘primary’ vaccinations at nine weeks and three months old cost an average of £63, with annual boosters costing an average of £44.


WHICH PETS ARE GETTING THEIR JABS?

  • The number of dogs receiving a primary vaccination (when young) decreased from 82% in 2011 to 72% in 2019 then increased 81% in 2020

  • Cats receiving primary vaccinations when young has decreased: 72% in 2011 to 69% in 2020

  • The number of rabbits receiving no preventive care reduced: 23% in 2011 to 8% in 2020

Source: PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2020


What to do if you don’t know if your pet has been vaccinated

It’s always best to err on the side of caution. Blue Cross advises: “Respectable breeders will be able to give you this information, and good rehoming charities like Blue Cross will give a puppy a full vet check and provide up-to-date vaccines before they start their life as your pet. But, if for any reason you are unsure if your dog has had its vaccinations, consult your vet for advice. It does not hurt to repeat the course of injections.”


The importance of regular boosters

After their first vaccination course, your pet will need regular boosters to keep them protected. The period between boosters varies, depending on the disease being covered, the local risk, and the particular product. Many of the canine and feline diseases require annual boosting, some of the rabies vaccinations only require a booster every three years, and myxomatosis in rabbits should be topped up every six months in areas of the country where the disease is prevalent. Missed boosters may mean that your pet might need to start over with their vaccinations.

Titre testing – something to ask your vet about

If you’re concerned about the effect a vaccine may have on your pet, for example, if they have had an allergic reaction to a vaccination in the past, are elderly or suffer from a weakened immune system, you could ask your vet about something called ‘titres’ as an option.

Antibody titres are blood tests that measure the level of antibodies in the blood, which may help your vet determine if your pet has a reasonable expectation of protection against disease. If an animal’s antibody titre for parvovirus, for example, is within a required specific range, then they should be safe from that disease without the need for a booster vaccine.

PDSA advises: “Titre testing is currently only available for dogs. It is a blood test that tells you whether your dog needs a booster vaccination or not. While this can be useful, it doesn’t replace the need for boosters completely and it doesn’t cover all diseases.”


Older pets and vaccinations

Being older doesn’t mean that your pet is more resistant to disease – if anything, they are more at risk. As your pet ages, they might find it difficult to get over illnesses, so it’s important that you continue to get your pet vaccinated regularly.

The RSPCA advises: “Older pets need protecting too, as their immunity can decline. Speak to your vet as the regularity of your companions vaccinations can vary depending on the diseases prevalent in your area.”


Indoor pets and vaccinations

Even if your pet lives entirely indoors, they still need vaccinating. Many diseases can survive for a long time in the environment and you or other visitors can bring infections into the house on shoes and clothes. Other animals can bring in infections on their fur or on their paws.


TOP REASONS FOR NOT VACCINATING

  • Too expensive 17%

  • Pet doesn’t come into contact with other animals 17%

  • Not necessary 16%

  • Pet finds going to the vets very stressful 13%

  • Haven’t thought about it 11%

  • Not got around to it 10%

Source: PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report 2019


Dr Suzanne Moyes adds: “As a pet owner, one of the best things you can do to take care of your animal friends is to take them for regular check-ups and always keep their vaccinations up to date. In fact, the health and wellbeing of our pets is protected by law. The Animal Welfare Act of 2006 introduced a duty of care for all pet animals. This includes providing a suitable environment, a suitable diet, the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns and protection from pain, suffering, injury and disease. Vaccinations play an essential part of this.”


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Sources: pdsa.org.uk, bluecross.org.uk, rspca.org.uk, rcvs.org.uk, thekennelclub.org.uk

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