Six Vaccine Tips Veterinarians Stand Behind: But Do You?

Why is it that certain media personalities –– rock stars, actors and heiress types –– often take it upon themselves to make blanket proclamations about vaccines? 

I guess it’s the California thing. This state’s vaccination standards are the newest under attack by those who believe that the state’s leadership is “facist” and “corrupt” for mandating vaccination compliance before children can enter the public school system. 

Though celebrities and others who’ve railed against these controversial new requirements have claimed they’re not anti-vaccine (just anti-mercury, or anti-neurotoxin, or anti-thimerosal, or anti-autism, or anti-vaccine manufacturer or anti-fill-in-the-blank), their prepackaged rhetoric and unsourced stats sometimes make me question their Olympic leaps of logic, too. 

I get it, though. We fear for our children’s safety. Not only can we reasonably hypothesize that our kids’ environment is to blame for many of the new generation of their ills (allergies, autism, ADHD, obesity, etc.), we know for sure that vaccines can have serious side effects, too. 

What’s more, like many of those who roundly condemn vaccines, I harbor a pointed distrust of vaccine manufacturers and their mega-lobbies. Who wouldn’t? 

Indeed, when it was my son’s turn, I found the vaccination process to be every bit as harrowing as any other protective parent might. Knowing that big pharma considers a certain risk of vaccine reactions to be epidemiologically and economically tolerable –– a risk that’s clearly in their best interest to downplay –– I was less than comfortable with the process. Like anyone else, I didn’t want my son to become one of their “acceptable” statistical outliers.

Despite my discomfort, however, never did I consider opting out of my son’s core childhood vaccines (or even out of the controversial HPV series once he reached adolescence). In a world of limited options, I had to make a choice. And opting out only sends a muted political message –– it doesn’t help protect my son. 

But then, I’m scientifically schooled and I, too, have been trained to consider certain risks “acceptable.” Because, as I like to tell my clients, “If the rewards are bigger than the risks … I’m all in.” Not that that keeps me from feeling the same fear everyone else does. 

Those of you who’ve already replaced the word “kids” with “pets” in this post will know where I’m going with this. By now, you’ll have surmised that I’m a) highly tolerant of pet owners who fear for their pets but b) squarely in favor of administering basic vaccinations to all but my sickest patients. 

In other words, I’ll hear you out when you’ve got issues related to vaccines and I’ll always let you make the decisions (I’ll never force anyone to vaccinate their pet!) but I’ll stick to my guns when it comes to the science behind my recommendations. It’s what you pay me for, after all.  

To that end, here’s a short list of the evidence-based recommendations most veterinarians are likely to stand behind:

#1 Vaccine guidelines

I tend to reference the American Animal Hospital Association’s (AAHA’s) vaccination guidelines for dogs and the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP’s) vaccination guidelines for cats. But if someone comes around asking for Dr. Jean Dodd’s vaccine protocol, I’ll comply seeing as it’s almost identical. 

#2 Vaccine frequency

Most “core” vaccines (vaccines against common diseases) should be administered every three years (or less). None of this annual rabies vaccine thing or semi-annual parvovirus vaccine administration. Since this is my blog, I feel comfortable saying that any veterinarian who insists on these high frequency protocols is either a) practicing outdated medicine and/or b) isn’t putting your pet’s best interest ahead of their own. Yes, you can quote me on that. 

#3 Full doses

Half-dose vaccination is a “thing” for some pet owners and their pocket-sized dogs. The assumption here is that a Chihuahua needs only half a dose of vaccine seeing as it only weighs five pounds. Unfortunately, this has not been proven to be the case. All the evidence thus far points to the fact that both Yorkies and Danes require the same exact dose of vaccine. 

#4 Vaccine titers in lieu of vaccination

Some veterinarians and pet owners prefer to test their patients/pets for the presence of protective antibodies (“titers”) against the disease in question. This is controversial, as testing for antibodies doesn’t always reflect complete protection against a disease. In general, however, antibody titer testing has been widely deemed acceptable after the initial series of vaccines (plus one booster). There are a couple of caveats, however: 

1) Titer testing in lieu of vaccination is only employed in the case of common vaccines (like distemper and parvovirus, for example), for which titer testing is readily available and reasonably priced.

2) Titer testing should be undertaken annually after the vaccine manufacturer’s recommended duration of immunity has expired.

(Note: Titer testing is decidedly not acceptable for rabies given that most US municipalities require the rabies vaccines and will not accept a test in lieu of vaccination.)

#5 Thimerosal-free vaccines?

Thimerosal is a mercury-containing vaccine preservative allegedly implicated in triggering autism in children. After fairly exhaustive research on this fraught subject, however, there’s been no evidence that thimerosal is to blame for autism or any other potential vaccine-associated disease –– much less in the veterinary literature. 

In fact, we’ve even looked for mercury residue in pets who received thimerosal-containing vaccines, but haven’t found any. And there’s no evidence of nervous system effects, either. Here’s a great post on this topic by Dolittler fave, SkeptVet.

Upshot: Some vaccines are marketed as "thimerosal-free" but your veterinarian might have a really good reason for preferring other brands of vaccines. (Full disclosure: I don't use "thimerosal-free" vaccines.)

#6 “Non-core” vaccines

“Non-core” vaccines are those reserved for pets whose lifestyle or geographic location presents a unique risk. But not all veterinarians agree on who’s at risk. So it is that some veterinarians recommend vaccination against all diseases –– both “core” and “non-core” –– while others veterinarians will tailor the vaccine regimen to their individual patients’ risk profiles. 

Personally, I prefer the individualized approach. I mean, why vaccinate annually against feline leukemia when your patient never sees the out-of-doors? 


OK so by now I’ve probably offended a wide swath of you and tickled a handful. After all, there’s no topic more potentially incendiary than one that pits naked fear against calculated reason. And  for some reason, vaccines seem to attract both perspectives in equal measures. 

Hopefully, however, this post has at least given you a somewhat in-between perspective to consider. For a select brave few, perhaps it’s even raised questions you’ll bring up at your next veterinary visit. But in the meantime, feel free to ask them here … 

Oh, and I’ll take your testy comments, too. Don’t worry if you disagree. That what makes Dolittler all the more fun. ;-)