Dog at veterinarian

Question: Which vaccines does my 11-year-old dog really need?

My mini Schnauzer is 11 yrs old he has been diabetic since he is 3 yrs old. What shots does he need at this age? He is never boarded and he is inside all day except for his walks. I do not want to give him unnecessary shots and tests at his age. Thanks.

–Mary Ann


Dear Mary Ann,

Thanks for sending me this question. Your concerns are valid and shared by many senior pet guardians.

There is no definitive evidence that vaccines, in general, cause disease in dogs beyond the occasional allergic reaction. Still, we know that each vaccine induces an immune response and changes in a dog’s body. It’s hard to imagine that response occurs in a vacuum. In my opinion, it’s likely that vaccines cause some subtle reactions that we haven’t been able to characterize yet.

Wise pet guardians give only the vaccines that are necessary and effective. You need to know which diseases your dog might be exposed to and whether the vaccine against that disease is effective at preventing it. Also, it doesn’t make sense to give vaccines against organisms that cause very mild disease that your dog can get over without treatment.

There are a couple of good resources to consult about choosing vaccines for your dog. First, check with your state animal control department. Most states require rabies vaccination for dogs every 1-3 years. You can find a list here: information by state.

If your state doesn’t require rabies vaccination for dogs, call your county and city animal control agencies to see if they have requirements. To save time, you can ask your local veterinarian. They should be up to speed on legal requirements in your area.

Only a few states allow for exemption from rabies vaccination. This might be done for very sick animals or dogs who have had a severe reaction to the vaccine in the past. You must check your local laws to find out if they allow rabies vaccination exemptions.

Beyond rabies, I’m not aware of any other legally required vaccines. The American Animal Hospital Association publishes vaccine recommendations every few years that most veterinarians follow. They have a few “core” vaccines they say every dog should get: rabies, distemper, parvo, and adenovirus. The rest are considered “non-core” and should be given to at-risk dogs only.

Distemper and parvo are potentially deadly viruses that usually affect young dogs and puppies. Puppy vaccines invariably contain distemper and parvo vaccination material. These vaccines are very effective at preventing disease (90% or more) and the protection lasts a long time in most dogs.

A 2004 study showed that puppies vaccinated against distemper, parvo, and parainfluenza maintained immunity for 55-57 months. That’s nearly 5 years! It’s likely that an 11-year-old dog who has had several of these vaccines in his lifetime still has adequate immunity to distemper and parvo.

To check if your dog has adequate protection against parvo and distemper, you can request that your vet run titer tests. A titer is a blood test that measures the number of antibodies your dog has to a disease-causing organism. The lab will tell you whether your dog has a protective level. If the level is found to be inadequate, you may opt to re-vaccinate your dog.

Titers are great for giving pet owners some peace of mind but most boarding kennels will not accept vaccine titers in lieu of an actual vaccine. I recommend clients who don’t want to give vaccines to senior pets look into hiring an in-home pet sitter.

If you intend to board your dog at any time, the kennel will probably also require that your dog be currently vaccinated against Bordetella. Bordetella vaccines are meant to protect against the Bordetella bronchiseptica bacteria that causes a contagious cough in dogs.

Bordetella rarely causes life-threatening symptoms and the vaccines against it may not be all that effective at preventing disease. Dogs at risk for contracting Bordetella are those who attend dog shows, stay at boarding kennels or visit dog parks.

Oodles of other vaccines are available today. Have a candid conversation with your veterinarian about your dog’s risks. Discuss your dog’s lifestyle–travel, exposure to other dogs and wildlife, whether he goes to boarding kennels, etc.. Ask your vet what the risk of each disease is in your location before agreeing to any new vaccination for your dog.


TB Thompson, DVM

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