Stray and Owner Surrendered Canines and Vaccines

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Shelters and rescue organizations are overflowing with abandoned or owner surrendered dogs. As dealing with these animals involves complex medical, social and management issues, a standard vaccination protocol is usually adopted for all dogs and cats to mitigate potential viral or other infectious diseases and parasite outbreaks. The standard protocol is usually to give a dog a DHLPP (distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza and parvovirus) polyvalent “combo” vaccine and a rabies vaccine upon his intake or release. I never recommend giving a 5-way polyvalent vaccine to these stressed and often malnourished animals, let alone giving rabies vaccine at the same time. As the dog is more than likely stressed both physically and mentally at the time of the vaccination, this puts him at greater risk for adverse vaccine reactions and long term health complications. Organizations need to assess age, environment, and the dog’s current medical condition before automatically vaccinating. Hopefully this post will be serve as a general guide to shelters, rescues and pet adopters.

Pregnant or Nursing Dogs

Pregnant and nursing dogs should not be given any vaccines as these could harm the health of the dam and her litter. The litter and mother should also be separated from the general population until eight or nine weeks, when the first vaccine is administered to the puppies. My minimal vaccine protocol is the one we recommend in these instances.

Owner Surrendered Dogs

If an owner surrenders a pet and provides medical records or the attending veterinarian’s contact information, my vaccine protocol can be followed based on the age of the dog. A dog does not need annual DHLPP vaccinations or any similar combination. Rabies is an exception because it is required by law. Depending on the last time a rabies vaccine was administered, the vaccine may need to be given within one to three years. The point here is to refer to the records before automatically giving more booster vaccinations.

If medical records were not given or available, please refer to the next section.

Stray Dogs

This situation definitely presents a dilemma as the dog may have already been vaccinated within the last few months or even days. Due to the unknown vaccine status of many rescued dogs, it may be the wisest and safest approach to give two doses of the two-way DPV (distemper, parvovirus) vaccine 3 weeks apart. Alternatively, at least 3 weeks after the first dose, the dog can have distemper and parvovirus serum titers run instead.

Please remember, a dog estimated to be older than one year of age is most likely properly vaccinated for and was immunized to distemper and parvovirus. He would not have survived this long without having the vaccines for these two serious viral diseases. If he contracted one of these two diseases and was not immunized, he would most likely have died.

Rabies should be given a minimum of three to four weeks later. The rabies booster should be given within one year after the initial rabies shot.

Infectious Canine Hepatitis

I realize that concerns are being raised against the risk of contracting infectious canine hepatitis (CAV-1). I also acknowledge that dogs are often transported around the country and across state lines.

At this point in time, my vaccine protocol does not recommend the CAV-2 vaccine which is used for hepatitis and part of the kennel cough complex, because until just very recently, there have been no documented clinical cases of infectious canine hepatitis in North America from 2000-2012. There was one small incident documented several years ago at the Canadian/New England border.

If CAV-2 is to be administered, I recommend completing this after the puppy has reached puberty, because the documented 10-day immune suppressant effect of adding CAV-2 vaccine to the combo with canine distemper occurs only in puppies but not adult dogs.

If CAV-2 is required, then distemper and parvovirus are probably required as well.

Kennel Cough and Bordetella

I prefer the intranasal or oral versions of these vaccines, rather than the injectable form, which are given to protect against the upper respiratory canine diseases. The intranasal and oral vaccines for Bordetella induce the production of interferon, which helps to cross-protects against the other upper respiratory viruses, whereas the injectable vaccines do not do this.

However, none of these vaccines is fully effective and may not be needed at all, unless required by a boarding or grooming facility that will not accept the owner’s written waiver to “hold the facility harmless”.

When giving the kennel cough or Bordetella vaccines, please separate them by at least 2 weeks from other vaccines.

Canine Influenza Vaccine

Canine influenza virus is highly contagious when dogs gather in shelters, rescues, for boarding or at performance events. It is generally not a serious disease, unless the dog happens to be among the 2-3% that carry Streptococcus bacteria in their respiratory tract. For this subset, canine influenza co-infection can be serious or fatal. One simple way to differentiate canine influenza from routine kennel cough is the fact that canine influenza produces a fever and can lead rapidly to bronchopneumonia, whereas kennel cough does not cause a fever unless the dog subsequently develops pneumonia from failing to receive routine supportive care.

For the above reasons, I do not generally recommend giving the canine influenza vaccine.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a tick-borne disease caused by Borelia burgdorferi. But, this disease is location centric in that only certain areas of the country are at higher risk for exposure, such as the northeast, great lakes region and northwest. For these regions of the country, tick control during the spring through fall seasons and vaccination against Lyme disease is important, and vaccination for this disease should be considered where the pet and pet owner life-style present an exposure risk (remember that people can get this disease too).

That said, vaccine expert, Dr. Ron Schultz of the University of Wisconsin, and I both believe that dogs in low-risk exposure states do not need to receive Lyme vaccine. Further, a very small number of infected dogs (3-4%) actually get Lyme disease. In general, areas with a low infection rate (<10%), the vaccine should not be used as it will be of little to no value and may enhance disease (e.g. arthritis) directly or in some dogs that subsequently become infected.


Most Leptospirosis strains (there are about 200) do not cause disease, and of the seven clinically important strains, only four — L. icterohaemorrhagiae, L. canicola, L. grippotyphosa, and L. pomona serovars — are found in today’s vaccines. So, exposure risk depends upon which serovars of leptospirosis have been documented to cause clinical leptospirosis in the area where you live. You can call the County Health Department or local Animal Control and ask.

According to Dr. Schultz, in high risk exposure areas, the clinical incidence of leptospirosis is about 1:1000 to 1:2500 dogs; whereas the general risk in lower risk exposure sites is very low at about 1:5000-1:10,000 dogs. Although positive Lepto serum antibody titers can be obtained to the L. autumnalis and L. Bratislava servoars, these do not produce clinical disease.

Furthermore, true clinical cases of leptospirosis have Lepto serum titers of at least 1:1600 or higher, and an 8 to16-fold rise in titer three to four weeks later is needed to confirm the disease.

Even so, Dr. Schultz notes, “I find there’s still a fairly high percentage of dogs that do not respond to the 4-way vaccine. In addition, of all the bacterin vaccines, leptospirosis causes the most adverse reactions.”

Additionally, I would like it to be noted that leptospirosis vaccines, like Lyme vaccines, need two doses given 3 weeks apart to immunize the dog regardless of the age given. Boosters are then needed annually thereafter. So, if a dog is given a DHLPP shot and his vaccination history is unknown, he will still need another leptospirosis shot three weeks later. I highly doubt this practice is observed during a dog’s shelter or foster home stays, so there is no point in giving leptospirosis in the first place if it is not administered appropriately.

If the dog lives in or is transported to an area where these four strains have been observed, then the shelter or rescue will need to assess whether or not to give this vaccine and administer it responsibly.

Lastly, I do realize that there is often a difference between reality and what would be ideal, so I invite shelters and rescue organizations to tell me more about their specific situations so I can help them achieve an optimum and safe vaccine protocol.

W. Jean Dodds, DVM
Hemopet / NutriScan
11561 Salinaz Avenue
Garden Grove, CA 92843

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