Pet vaccination

Over-vaccinating your pet could be harmful to their health as well as your own hip pocket.
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01 .Introduction


CHOICE has found that many pets may be getting vaccinated too often and unnecessarily by vets, with often grave ramifications. Despite international advice and new professional guidelines introduced last year, many adult cats and dogs are still receiving injections annually instead of the now recommended cycle of every three years.

Pet owners are not being told about the new guidelines on so-called core vaccines and many vets continue to recommend annual core vaccinations. The problem is compounded by the fact many of the labels on vaccines still state they can be used annually. The Australian regulator, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), is working with manufacturers to update this information.

There are many obstacles in the way of ensuring all Australian vets operate by the new guidelines. The veterinary profession is self-regulated and vets are not required to join the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) or follow its guidelines. The AVA has about 6000 members, accounting for approximately 60% of the veterinary profession.

Many boarding kennels and catteries require pets to have up-to-date vaccination records, which often include non-core vaccines. The triennial guidelines only apply to core vaccines, which means some non-core vaccines, such as the Kennel Cough, still need to be done annually.

Some pet owners who have lost their pets have joined forces to raise awareness and lobby for changes to the system.

Conflict of interest?

An industry survey found “89% of veterinarians indicated that dog and cat vaccinations were the number one contributor to practice turnover, and 91% of vets felt that a change from annual vaccination would have an adverse effect on their practice turnover”.

Vaccine manufacturers

Dr Richard Squires, an associate professor and Head of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at James Cook University, told CHOICE that vets may be reluctant to switch to triennial vaccinations because they’re closely following the manufacturers’ recommendations on the label. “To use vaccines in an off-label manner may lay the vet open to serious legal consequences if a vaccine used off-label failed to protect an animal.”

State and territory legislation allows vets to use vaccines at whatever interval they determine is best, provided they obtain informed consent from the pet owner, and they are under no obligation to follow recommendations on vaccine labels.

To approve the recommended revaccination interval on vaccine labels, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) requires duration of immunity (DOI) studies by vaccine manufacturers. However, manufacturers are only required to supply minimum DOI data, so the vaccine could provide immunity for a longer period than stated on the label. In its position statement released earlier this year, the APVMA says it does not support labels that direct or imply a universal need for life-long annual revaccinations with core vaccines, and it is currently working with vaccine manufacturers to update these labels.


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Last year, the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) changed its vaccination guidelines. The brief history below shows why the decision was made to change vaccinations from annually, to every three years.


Routine annual revaccination of adult animals became the accepted norm.


US vets noticed an alarming increase in the number of tumours occurring in cats. These “new” tumours were located in parts of the body where vaccine was typically injected – for example, between the shoulder blades.

An association between injection of adjuvanted vaccines against both the leukaemia virus and rabies and the development of injection-site sarcomas (malignant tumours) in cats was soon confirmed.


Experts began to question whether adult cats and dogs were being over-vaccinated. Several American veterinary schools switched to a triennial schedule of booster vaccinations against core viruses; Massey University in New Zealand followed suit three years later.

Since 2007

The World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) has been advising vets to continue vaccinating pets with core vaccines, but to reduce their frequency in order to minimise the potential for adverse reactions. In its revised guidelines released this year, the WSAVA states that “core vaccines should not be given any more frequently than every three years after the 12-month booster injection following the puppy/kitten series, because the duration of immunity (DOI) is many years and may be up to the lifetime of the pet”.

June 2009

The AVA issued a revised policy stating that in most cases core vaccines need not be administered any more frequently than triennially, or even less so under certain circumstances, such as if your pet is kept inside and less likely to come into contact with these viruses.

Because maternal antibodies are soon lost after birth, to ensure they’re successfully immunised the WSAVA recommends puppies and kittens should be vaccinated first at 8-9 weeks of age, followed by a second vaccination 3-4 weeks later and a third given between 14-16 weeks, followed by a booster at one year old.

  • After that, bring your pet to the vet every year for an annual health check. Discuss with your vet the most suitable vaccination regime for your pet.
  • If you’re concerned that your pet may be vaccinated unnecessarily, ask to have an antibody titre testing done. It can be done for all the core viruses for dogs and cats but is not common practice in Australia yet, so ask your vet if it is available.
  • To reduce the risk of tumours, feline adjuvanted vaccines should not be injected into your cat’s back.
  • Don’t be shy to ask questions, and get a second opinion if in doubt.
  • Report any unsatisfactory experiences to your state’s Veterinary Practitioners Board.
  • If your pet has a negative reaction to any vaccination, such as a loss of apepitite or a swollen face, contact your vet immediately and report the case to the APVMA on (02) 6210 4806.

Jargon buster

Adjuvant A substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen.
Core vaccines are those that should be administered to every puppy or kitten, and should be used in adults in a manner that maintains robust protection for life. The core vaccines protect against:

  • Dogs: Canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus (which causes infectious hepatitis), canine parvovirus.
  • Cats: Feline parvovirus (also known as feline enteritis and feline panleucopaenia), feline calicivirus, feline herpesvirus.

Non-core vaccines are those that don’t need to be administered to every animal. This could be because the disease(s) they protect against are relatively mild, the animal has little chance of exposure to the disease, the vaccine causes adverse effects, making the risk-benefit ratio unattractive, or there is insufficient scientific information to allow an informed decision about the need, efficacy and/or safety of the vaccine. Non-core vaccines protect against:

  • Dogs: Canine parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Leptospira interrogans.
  • Cats: Feline leukaemia virus, Chlamydophila psittaci, feline immunodeficiency virus

Common “combined” vaccines for dogs:

  • C3 (core): Parvovirus, distemper and infectious hepatitis
  • C4: C3 + parainfluenza virus
  • C5: C4 + Bordetella bronchiseptica

Common “combined” vaccines for cats:

  • F3 (core): Feline parvovirus and the two viruses that cause feline respiratory disease (feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus)
  • F4: F3 + leukaemia virus
  • F5: F4 + immunodeficiency virus

Maternal antibodies When a puppy or kitten is born, it receives immunity-producing protein antibodies from its mother, known as maternal antibodies. The duration is directly proportional to the level of immunity of the mother. As long as the maternal antibodies are present, the puppy or kitten is protected; however, these antibodies may also prevent the vaccine from working. So it is recommended that puppies and kittens be vaccinated at various times to ensure they are successfully immunised.

Sally and PatsySally Turner has vaccinated her dogs annually for many years, as advised by her vet. This year, when Sally took her four-year-old dog Patsy for vaccination, she raised the topic of triennial vaccination. However, the clinic was not offering triennial vaccinations and Patsy received a C5 and an injection to protect against heartworm.

One week later, Patsy died from an immune response triggered by the distemper vaccine in the C5. Sally has since become aware of the new guidelines for vaccination by veterinary professional bodies such as the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA). Had she known about them beforehand, she would have insisted Patsy be vaccinated accordingly.

Pet owners on a mission

After the sudden death of her eight-yearold dog Champus from immune-mediated disease, Bea Mies began looking into possible causes for her pet’s death.

Elizabeth HartWhen she learned that vaccines had likely perpetuated Champus’ condition, she began to question the practice of annual core vaccinations and contacted both the Australian Veterinary Association and Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) , as well as the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Elizabeth Hart (right) has been campaigning against unnecessary and possibly harmful pet vaccinations since 2008, after her eight-year-old dog Sasha became ill and was subsequently put down following vaccination.

Elizabeth has since joined forces with Bea to demand the veterinary profession adopt bestpractice vaccination, and to insist that pet owners be properly informed about crucial information regarding international vaccination guidelines.

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