Does My Pet Need a Rabies Shot Every Year?

What's the Difference Between a One and Three-Year Rabies Vaccine?

Veterinarian vaccinating a dog against rabies

 Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm / Getty Images

While many pet owners are preferring more natural, holistic methods of caring for their furry friends, vaccinations should still be given in accordance with state laws and veterinary guidelines. Preventive medicine is the single most important thing you can do to ensure your pet remains happy and healthy, and appropriate vaccinations are a crucial part of that.

Since rabies is such a serious, fatal disease, and vaccination is the only way to keep you and your pet safe, rabies vaccination is required by law for every pet in the United States. Without a current rabies vaccination, your pet may need to be quarantined or even euthanized for biting someone or being bitten by a potentially rabid animal. 

You may ask why a test can’t be performed to see if an animal has rabies, rather than quarantining or euthanizing. And, while there is testing available to determine if an animal is carrying the rabies virus, it cannot be performed on a live animal, as brain matter is sampled for testing. 

With such serious health hazards and lack of easy testing, it makes sense that you would want to protect your pet and your family from this deadly disease through a simple vaccination.

How do vaccinations work?

First, let’s look at how the immune system works in pets. When a foreign disease agent, such as a virus or bacteria, enters your pet’s body, her immune system develops antibodies to fight off the disease. Once the body has created those antibodies, your pet likely won’t be infected by the same exact strain of disease again, because the body will immediately recognize and destroy it. 

Some diseases are so devastating, especially in young pets, that vaccinations are a crucial part of protection. A vaccination consists of small particles of a virus or bacteria that have been altered so they won’t cause active disease, but the antigen remains intact to stimulate the immune system. Once administered, the body will mount an immune response against the bacteria or virus by creating antibodies. If your pet is exposed to a disease she is vaccinated against, her antibodies will leap into action to protect her. 

How frequently does my pet need to be vaccinated?

While some rabies vaccinations are licensed for one year, others are labeled for three years, but some states require annual vaccination regardless of labeling. Your veterinarian will know your state’s laws and keep your pet on the appropriate vaccination schedule. 

Whether your pet only needs a rabies vaccination every three years or not, you should still schedule annual wellness visits for your furry friend. Regular wellness exams are the most important preventive measure that you can provide for your pet, and vaccinations are just one component of a wellness visit. Since pets don’t always show signs of early disease, annual or biannual exams are vital for keeping your pet in optimal health, regardless of how often vaccinations are administered. 

 

illustration of rabies vaccination timeline for pets
Illustration: Kelly Leigh Miller. © The Spruce, 2018

Are three-year vaccinations dangerous for my pet?

Actually, three-year rabies vaccinations are the same as one-year vaccinations. There is no additional volume or disease agent administered to trigger an immune response; the labeling is simply different for the vaccinations. Although your pet may receive a vaccination labeled for one year and is technically protected for three years, she is not legally protected for three years in the eyes of the state. 

Can the rabies vaccine cause any side effects in my pet?

All vaccinations can create side effects in your pet, so monitor her after each vaccination appointment for the following signs of a vaccine reaction:

  • Mild discomfort or swelling at the vaccination site
  • A slight fever
  • Decreased appetite
  • Decreased activity

These signs are mild and relatively common, appearing within a few hours after vaccination and resolving within a day or two. 

But, if you notice the following signs, a more serious reaction is occurring and you should return to your veterinarian:

  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Hives
  • Swelling of the muzzle, or around the face, neck, or eyes
  • Severe coughing 
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Collapse

Serious reactions can occur within mere minutes of vaccination, but can take several hours to appear. These more severe reactions often require emergency treatment. Although vaccine reactions can be alarming, watching your pet succumb to rabies is a much worse scenario. 

What does a rabies vaccination protect my pet against?

Keeping your pet current on her rabies vaccination ensures that she should be protected against the disease if bitten by a wild animal or other pet that is carrying rabies. Depending on your state’s laws, your pet will likely need to be quarantined for a period after a bite for safety purposes, but she should not develop the disease herself, due to strong antibodies through vaccination.

Can I test my pet’s rabies titers instead of vaccinating?

While there is titer testing for rabies available, antibody testing does not correlate with protection and only denotes prior vaccination. Titer testing provides information as to whether a pet has been exposed to a disease before, but not how well the body will react when threatened with the disease. Rabies titer testing is used for pets who are being exported to rabies-free portions of the world to determine that the pet has been recently vaccinated against rabies, not as evidence of protective immunity. 

Although you can ask for titers of other diseases in lieu of vaccination, you cannot do that for rabies. Rabies is the only vaccine that is required by law in the United States, as it is a fatal disease. It is also a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted from animals to people. For the health of the general public and their pets, all pets must be appropriately vaccinated for rabies, according to state guidelines. 

Vaccine requirements for each pet and geographic location are different. Please speak to your veterinarian about the best vaccination protocol for your specific pet, location, and lifestyle.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.