Do Puppies Need Shots? (a vaccination guide)

What's the deal?  Do puppies need shots?  Does your dog really need to be vaccinated for everything that your vet is recommending?  What about the side effects of vaccination and how often should your puppy or dog get vaccinated?


We vaccinate our dogs against a number of diseases, a lot are deadly, some are common and some are very rare.  Any vaccination program should consider 2 things:

  • The local risk of disease (local as in country/region as well as where your dog will actually go)

  • Your dogs lifestyle

Vaccines are based on severity and risk

We can then split our different vaccines into "core" vaccines and what I call "lifestyle" or non-core vaccines.  Which dogs these should be given to and how often are then based on the WSAVA vaccination guidelines formulated by veterinary health experts.

Essential core vaccinations

The core vaccines protect against those diseases that are present in the local area and which, if contracted have severe health implications, including death.  They may or may not be common.  In many places, where vaccine levels are high, vaccination has played a huge role in helping these diseases become uncommon.  Even so, when the consequences are so high, vaccination of all individuals is definitely justified.

What about the side-effects of vaccination you might ask.  Well, I discuss these in just a minute.

The classic disease most of you will have heard of is parvovirus.  It survives in the environment for a long time and remains in an area by circulating in the wildlife and stray dog population.  Vaccination is incredibly effective at preventing parvovirus so where vaccination levels are high it is quite possible that the number of animals who contract parvo will be very small.  Time and again though it has been shown that it only takes a small drop in the number of vaccinated dogs for there to be a serious outbreak.  Make no mistake, parvo is a terrible disease and is frequently fatal, especially for young puppies.

All puppies should definitely get their shots to protect them from parvo.  No doubt about it.

Some vaccines may be required by law

Rabies may be another core vaccine.  If it is in your local area then there may very well even be a legal requirement to vaccinate your dog with a specific regimen.  The requirement in the US varies by state and can be found here.

As well as killing dogs and other animals, it is a huge human health issue.  Rabies will kill anyone not vaccinated or treated immediately.

I know the fear of this first hand after being bitten by a street dog while volunteering in India.  Although I was vaccinated and administered a top up straight afterwards the next few days were a little anxious.  Thankfully the dog never developed rabies while it was in the hospital and I was obviously fine.

Other core vaccines can include, distemper, hepatitis and leptospirosis.  Your vet will know the local risk and will advise which ones should definitely be given to your dog.

"Optional" lifestyle vaccines

Now onto the lifestyle vaccinations.  These protect against diseases that are at a higher risk because of the activities or lifestyle your dog lives.  They may be quite common conditions and if so, then they are often non-fatal.  Some lifestyle vaccines however will protect against diseases that are quite rare but still have the potential to cause serious, even fatal disease.

Don't be fooled into thinking that lifestyle, or non-core vaccines, are automatically minor conditions that only make a dog a little unwell.

The classic example of a lifestyle vaccination in dogs in canine cough or kennel cough.  Now this disease is more of a syndrome, in that there are a lot of different bugs that can be contagious and result in coughing in dogs.  Some are only very mild and generally don't result in anything more than a slight cough.  Others, specifically a bacteria known as Bordetella bronchiseptica, is highly contagious and can result in a severe cough, a high temperature and a very unwell dog that can last for several weeks.  If caught by a puppy, elderly or immunocompromised dog then there is a risk of developing pneumonia.  In very rare cases this could be fatal.

If your dog is felt to be at a higher risk of catching these diseases because of their lifestyle then these additional vaccinations are a good idea.  If they are not at risk then they should not be given.

We don't want to give more vaccinations that needed.

Disease risk factors

Some risk factors for the lifestyle vaccines might be going into kennels or doggy day care.  Exercising in busy dog parks, going to shows or competitions.  It might be swimming and drinking water from rivers and lakes or visiting areas where ticks are a real threat.  It might just be living near livestock.  You should talk to your vet about what is most appropriate for your individual dog.

If you are not sure then getting your puppy vaccinated with shots against these diseases to start with may be the safest strategy.  If it later becomes apparent that your puppy or dog is at a low risk then these vaccinations can be stopped.

How often is vaccination needed in puppies and adult dogs?

So that's what we should vaccinate against, what about how often should these vaccines be given to your dog?  Our aim is to give them as little as possible while at the same time making sure our dog is always protected from the disease.

Well, vaccine technology is ever improving and our understanding of the bodies immune system is also improving.  Both of these points mean that in some cases we are now able to vaccinate our dogs less frequently, confident that this is not compromising their level of protection.

To start with, puppies need to have their initial vaccine course which generally involves 3 shots of the core vaccine, given 4 weeks apart, with the final shot given at 16 weeks of age.  A booster is then given at some point between 6 months and 1 year of age.

Generally speaking, after this initial course the core dog vaccines are expected to provide at least 3 years of protection against disease.  After this time, our dogs immunity may not remain high enough to protect against disease.  In some dogs though their immunity will last for 5 to 7 years or even longer.

This means that the general recommendation is often to re-vaccinate after 3 years to be certain that every vaccinated dog is protected.  An alternative is to run a blood test, known as a titer test, which may be able to tell if your dog is still immune, and so does not need its vaccinations at that time.  This is a big, complicated topic in it's own right that I've already discussed in my titre testing vs vaccination article.  The answer is often not as clear cut as some people might have you believe.

Our lifestyle vaccines are often of a different type to our core vaccines and this generally means that an annual vaccination is needed.  The immunity they stimulate our dogs bodies into producing only lasts for a relatively short period of time.  titer testing is also of little use in determining if our dog is still protected at a later date.

One thing that a lot of people worry about is the side-effects of vaccination.  The antivax movement in people has spilled over into our pets.  Believe it or not, vaccination is incredibly safe.  There is always a risk of side-effects with any medication but the incidence of significant side effects to vaccination that require treatment is absolutely tiny.

The biggest side-effect seen is a bit of lethargy and inappetence for 24-48 hours after a vaccine is given.  A bit of TLC is all that is needed.  In some individuals there may be other concerns but your vet can discuss these with you specifically and address any other concerns you may have.

There is no doubt in my mind that vaccination, at appropriate intervals, against those diseased which your dog may come across is a vital part of ensuring they remain as healthy as possible.

Our Pets Health: because they're family