Vaccinations help to prevent contagious and potentially fatal diseases in dogs. Vaccines work by stimulating an immune response, which lasts a varying amount of time depending on the vaccine and the disease it is trying to prevent. The vaccine contains a small dose of either dead or inactivated bacteria or virus. This means it is unable to cause disease, but is sufficient to invoke an immune response, so the immune system develops specific antibodies against the disease.

There are four core vaccines, which are essential, and the kennel cough vaccine, which is highly recommended but not essential. There is also a rabies vaccine, which will be required if you plan to take your dog outside the UK.

When puppies are first born, they rely completely on antibodies transferred across the placenta and provided in their mother’s colostrum (first milk) to protect them against harmful bacteria and viruses. This is called passive immunity. It involves one animal producing antibodies and then transferring them to a susceptible animal to provide immediate protection. Because of this, it is vital to ensure that bitches are fully vaccinated if you are breeding from them. Over the first few months of their life, this protection wanes, making the puppy more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Therefore it is important to vaccinate puppies at the right age and then ongoing throughout their lives.

Most vaccinations are given as a single, combined subcutaneous injection (just under the skin), usually in the scruff of the neck where there is plenty of skin to hold. The only one that differs is the kennel cough vaccine, which is an intra-nasal vaccine in the UK, given up the dog’s nostril. Although recently, an oral vaccine has been launched. The four core vaccines

puppy jab

Distemper

Also known as hard pad this is a highly contagious, often fatal, viral disease. It can take many forms and affect several of the dog’s body systems, making it often quite difficult to diagnose. It is often characterised by fever, reduced white blood cells, nasal discharge, gastrointestinal signs and inflammation of the lungs and brain.

A dog will become infected by inhaling the virus from droplets spread by an affected dog. Usually a short spell of fever follows for about three to six days after infection. This may go unnoticed or may be accompanied by lethargy and a loss of appetite. If blood tests are taken at this point, they may show a low white blood cell count.

A second episode of fever may be accompanied by lethargy, loss of appetite, plus nasal and ocular discharge. Gastrointestinal signs (vomiting, diarrhoea) and respiratory symptoms (coughing, breathlessness) may follow and are complicated by secondary bacterial infections. The classic sign is overgrowth of the skin on the footpads and nose, hence the nickname hard pad.

Neurological signs can include walking in circles, a head tilt and uncontrolled rapid eye movements (nystagmus). Also there may be muscle twitching of localised muscle groups (e.g. the leg or face), slight or complete paralysis of the hind limbs due to muscle incoordination, weakness and paralysis in all four legs. Seizures may develop with jaw chomping, involuntary urination and defecation. The seizures become more frequent and severe as the disease progresses.

Distemper infections may be mild with few or no signs with a short time course, or may be severe with most of the symptoms described. Sometimes the onset of neurological signs can be delayed for several weeks.

It’s treated with antibiotics, intravenous fluids, anti-inflammatories to reduce fever and control pain, and anticonvulsants if the dog is having seizures. A dog would need treating on an individual basis, depending on the symptoms. Dogs may make a full recovery but a prompt diagnosis and aggressive treatment is essential. However, even with the right treatment, some dogs do not make a satisfactory recovery and euthanasia may have to be considered.

Hepatitis

Canine infectious hepatitis, caused by canine adenovirus, is a contagious disease spread by the ingestion of urine, faeces, or saliva from an affected dog. Recovered dogs can even shed the virus in the urine for up to six months.

Symptoms range from a slight fever to dark red mucous membranes (gums), to vomiting, depression, clotting disorders, abdominal pain, jaundice and severe hepatitis (inflammation of the liver). Mortality rates range from 10 per cent to 30 per cent and are highest in very
young dogs.

The first sign is a fever of over 40°C (104°F), which can last up to six days. Dogs are usually lethargic, anorexic (off their food) and thirsty. They can have discharge from the eyes and nose, abdominal pain and vomiting. The gums can appear very red or covered with red dots caused by small bleeds (petechiae). The tonsils can be enlarged and there may be swelling of the head, neck and trunk. Despite the liver being involved, jaundice  is not always seen.

Clotting times are prolonged, causing spontaneous bleeding, which can be difficult to control. The nervous system is rarely involved but in severely affected dogs, this can lead to convulsions. In about 25 per cent of recovered dogs, a cloudy corneal opacity (blue eye) develops in both eyes seven to 10 days after acute signs disappear and usually resolves spontaneously.

Treatment is symptomatic and supportive, involving antibiotics, intravenous fluids and blood transfusions in severely ill dogs.

Parvovirus

This is a highly contagious virus that attacks the gastrointestinal system, causing severe vomiting, bloody diarrhoea, fever and loss of appetite. Extreme dehydration ensues and can be rapidly fatal (within 48-72 hours). It mainly affects young dogs. Generally unvaccinated (or incompletely vaccinated) dogs, and certain breeds, such as rottweilers, dobermans, German shepherds and English springer spaniels, are thought to be predisposed. The virus is resistant to many disinfectants, sunlight and heat. It can persist for many months, possibly even years, in the outdoor environment. Higher incidences are found in dog rescue centres or breeding kennels.

The virus is shed in the faeces of the infected dogs after four to five days of exposure and is spread by faecal-oral spread (the ingestion of faeces) or by contact with contaminated clothing, shoes or equipment.

Symptoms generally develop within five to seven days of infection. Initially signs may be non-specific, including lethargy, loss of appetite and fever, with progression to vomiting and haemorrhagic (bloody) diarrhoea within 24-48 hours. Severely affected dogs can progress quickly to being in a collapsed state, with weak pulses, high heart rates and hypothermia (cold body temperature), consistent with septic shock.

A faecal sample and blood tests help to confirm the diagnosis and treatment must be instigated promptly otherwise Parvo can sadly often be fatal. However, puppies that survive the first three or four days of illness are more likely to make a full recovery. Treatment involves intravenous fluids to correct dehydration and electrolyte imbalances, plasma transfusions, anti-sickness drugs, antibiotics, antivirals and good nutrition, sometimes requiring a feeding tube to be placed and syringe feeding provided.

Leptospirosis

This bacterial disease is transmitted by rodent urine, which can be transmitted to humans as well as other animal species. There are several strains present in different species in different countries of the world. The most common in the UK are L. canicola and L. icterohaemorrhagiae.

Symptoms in dogs include fever, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, loss of appetite, weakness and lethargy, stiffness, muscle pain and kidney failure (with or without liver failure). Signs of kidney injury can either be urinating excessively or, conversely, producing less or even no urine. Acute liver disease may also occur, causing affected dogs to be jaundiced. Less commonly, bleeding disorders can cause small bleeds on the gums and skin (petechiae), a bloody nasal discharge and blood in stools and vomit.

Blood tests can confirm the presence of the bacteria. Supportive treatment includes intravenous fluids, antibiotics such as doxycycline, anti-sickness drugs, gut protectants, phosphate binders and drugs to support the liver.

There has been a lot of press about the safety of the leptospirosis vaccines in the last few years, namely one known as L4. Previously most drug companies produced the L2 vaccine against the two common strains L. canicola and L. icterohaemorrhagiae, but more recently strains have been discovered in populations of wild animals, so an L4 vaccine was manufactured containing four strains rather than two. L4 has potentially been associated with more adverse reactions, simply because more antigen means the immune system is stimulated more, therefore the greater the risk of side effects. The overall risk of an adverse reaction with either L2 or L4 is still ‘rare’ meaning that less than 10 dogs out of every 10,000 vaccinated will have a reaction, ranging from mild to severe. With L2, this risk is less than two in every 10,000 and with L4 the risk is less than seven in every 10,000 dogs.

In summary, the risk of an unvaccinated dog getting Leptospirosis far outweighs the risk of an adverse reaction with a vaccine, and the consequences could be far worse. Unless you travel abroad with your dog, or they are likely to swim in natural watercourses on farmland, then the L2 vaccine should be sufficient.

jab dog

Non-core vaccines

Kennel cough

Infectious Tracheobronchitis (ITB) or kennel cough, is predominantly caused by the bacterium Bordetella Bronchiseptica, which may be combined with parainfluenza. It is a sudden, or sometimes chronic, inflammation of the trachea and smaller (bronchial) airways, causing their walls to become inflamed and swollen, in turn, narrowing the airways.

Spasms of coughing are the most prominent sign. The cough attempts to remove accumulations of mucus from the airways. Often it is most severe after rest, when the dog is excited or during exercise. The dog’s temperature may be slightly increased. The acute stage of bronchitis passes in two to three days but the cough may persist for several weeks.

Generally, the diagnosis is made based on the history, symptoms and physical examination of the dog. In severe or prolonged cases, x-rays, endoscopy and fluid samples taken from the lungs may be recommended by your vet.

Infections often self-resolve or may require anti-inflammatories and cough suppressants to help ease the symptoms. Antibiotics are sometimes required if a bacteria component is confirmed. On rare occasions, severe cases can lead to pneumonia. There is an annual vaccine and in the UK, this is currently available in intra-nasal or intra-oral form.

Parainfluenza

Canine parainfluenza is a virus that contributes towards Kennel Cough (Infectious Tracheobronchitis). It is highly contagious and spreads easily when dogs are in close proximity to each other for a period of time, such as boarding kennels or within groups of working dogs and hunt kennels. Parainfluenza, sometimes combined with Bordetella Bronchiseptica, causes the classic signs of kennel cough to result.

Symptoms, in addition to a dry, hacking cough, may include fever, sometimes a nasal discharge, sneezing, inflamed eyes, occasionally depression, lethargy and loss of appetite.

Treatment is usually just supportive including anti-inflammatories to ease the fever and cough. Antibiotics are not generally required. A vaccine is available in injectable or intra-nasal forms.

Rabies

Rabies is a fatal disease for both dogs and humans, characterised by a swaying gait, painful neck, excessive salivation and convulsions of facial muscles. Aggressive behaviour can be seen, even with biting and not letting go.

If you are planning to travel outside of the UK with your dog it will need a rabies vaccination before travel. UK licensed vaccines last for three years but on the continent, some are only licensed for one year. With Brexit it is unclear when or how the requirements will change for the Pet Travel Scheme so please make sure you contact your vet to discuss the protocol for travel at least four months before your proposed travel date.

The jab routine

Depending of the brand, dog vaccinations usually involve a combined annual injection, containing all the core vaccines, given in one subcutaneous injection. Rabies and kennel cough vaccines are also available and given separately.

The primary vaccinations for puppies involve two injections, generally given two to four weeks apart. Sometimes a breeder may decide to give the first vaccination prior to selling puppies and this can be given from six weeks of age. The second vaccine must be given after the age of 10 weeks to ensure that all maternity antibodies have waned and the puppy develops their own immunity.

After the primary course of injections, the next injection is given 12 months later and should be given annually thereafter. If your dog has gone three months overdue with their booster vaccination (i.e. it is over 15 months since their last vaccination), it is recommended to re-start the vaccination course, so two primary vaccines will be given again, two to four weeks apart.

Just to reiterate, it is vital that potential breeding bitches are fully vaccinated to ensure that antibodies are passed on to the puppies via the uterus and through their colostrum.

The alternative to vaccinations is titre testing. A blood sample can be taken to check antibody levels in the blood. The test helps reduce vaccination failure and some people believe it prevents over-vaccination and helps owners to make informed vaccination decisions. If an animal already has a protective level of immunity, revaccination will not be required. If titre levels are inadequate, then revaccination is recommended.

The downfall of titre tests is that only hepatitis, parvovirus and distemper can be tested for.