Although the weather doesn’t agree, spring is in the air. I heard bird calls again when I was out last week! As days get (slightly) longer and (slightly) warmer, we start to think of spring. While we often spread vaccines out over the year, spring means pet vaccines to most people. It also means that it is time to start thinking about preventatives if you stopped them. Late fall and early spring are common times for dogs to get infected with tick-borne diseases. I will talk about both of these things later, but this week I will go over vaccines.

Let me preface this by saying that I do believe in vaccines strongly. I believe in eliminating diseases and keeping populations healthy. I have friends who are vets who live in areas without much vaccinating, and they see way too many pets die from preventable diseases. What I will say is that you should absolutely address any concerns you have about vaccines with your veterinarian. We are here to help guide you.

The “core” vaccines are due every three years after the initial set (though some practices also do yearly.) This may mean (especially for cats) that your pet isn’t due for anything other than an examination. Annual exams are often overlooked, but are just as important when vaccines aren’t due. Having a trained professional examine all parts of your pet is extremely important.

Rabies and the distemper combination vaccine (which includes several viral diseases) are the two core vaccines. The “core” means that these are the things that all animals are prone to, so they should be protected against. The viruses found in the canine distemper combination vaccine are very important. Many of them were common and deadly before vaccination was standard. Now, luckily, the incidence is much lower.

Distemper/parvo combos

Parvovirus often causes fatal gastrointestinal signs and immune system failures. Parvo is often fatal, and is expensive and labor-intensive to treat. We see this most commonly in puppies, since their immune systems are still developing. However, parvovirus can also occur in older dogs that have had vaccine lapses, especially those that see many other dogs. Parvo is more common in other areas of the country (where dogs are vaccinated less) but is still very important everywhere. This virus is different in cats and mainly causes neurological issues passed down to kittens.

Distemper virus is canine-specific and carried in Vermont by foxes most commonly. It is very common in other places and is seen commonly in shelter puppies from the south who did not have adequately vaccinated mothers. While the distemper vaccine will not affect their personality (despite the name), it is an important disease to prevent. The feline distemper vaccine encompasses several viral diseases that cause respiratory disease most often, but can also cause immune-system issues and birth defects.


Rabies is pretty self-explanatory. It is the only vaccine that is mandated by law for all pets. Rabies is fatal if contracted by people (always) and is spread by wildlife (and unvaccinated pets), mainly bats and raccoons. If a pet is not vaccinated and bites a human, the process is long and expensive for both parties. Many wild animals have tested positive for rabies in our area, and since bats can go indoors, even indoor cats should be up to date.


The Lyme vaccine is becoming considered core in certain areas of the country, including Vermont. Contrary to popular myths, this does not increase the incidence or cause Lyme disease. It also can be given after a dog has tested positive for Lyme disease. Like the flu vaccine, it doesn’t prevent Lyme disease. It does decrease the severity of disease and decreases the fatal form (to the kidneys.) This vaccine should be given to dogs with healthy immune systems that spend time outdoors. It should be given in conjunction with tick prevention for the most effective protection.


Leptospirosis is a type of bacteria that is found in ground-water and spread to dogs. It is transmitted in the urine of many types of animals, including deer, rats, squirrels, pigs and livestock. This is a yearly vaccine after the initial two-part series and should be started in dogs over four months of age. If you have a dog that is prone to drinking from puddles, ponds or streams this is an important vaccine. Although leptospirosis is thankfully not endemic in our area (which means that it is not extremely common), it is difficult to treat and can be deadly. We still see several cases a year, so we are not immune in Vermont.

Kennel cough

Dogs that are boarded, go to daycare, go to the groomers or are social (dog parks, walks where they see other dogs) should get this. It is another vaccine that doesn’t prevent disease but lessens the severity and chances of getting it.

Feline leukemia

This should be given to cats that go outdoors or have contact with other cats with unknown vaccination history. Leukemia is often fatal when contracted and can be spread to a mom’s kittens.

Remember that your veterinarian is there to help guide the vaccine process. We typically split up vaccines to lessen the burden on the immune system and increase response. However, this varies between clinics. What vaccines your pet should get and when varies, as our pets are not a one-size-fits-all.

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