Everything You Need to Know About Puppy Vaccinations

Bulldog puppy panting in man's arms

 Getty Images/Jenny Anderson/Contributor

Vaccines are an essential part of a puppy's health care plan. Certain basic immunizations are essential to keep your puppy from getting sick and prevent the spread of disease.

Why Vaccinate Your Puppy?

When puppies are born, their immune systems are not fully developed, so they cannot fight diseases as effectively as older dogs. Puppies receive protective antibodies from their mothers through nursing. During the first few hours of a puppy’s life, nursing mothers provide an especially antibody-rich milk called colostrum. These antibodies provide puppies with temporary immunity against illness. While the length of this immunity varies from puppy to puppy, it is generally believed that maternal antibodies wane gradually and are gone by 16 weeks of age.

Enter puppy vaccinations. Vaccines are designed to trigger immune responses and prevent future infection from diseases. All puppies should be administered certain core vaccines which provide immunity against the most dangerous and widespread diseases. 'Core' vaccines are the ones considered most essential for puppies in most geographical locations. Depending on your location and your puppy's environment, non-core vaccines may also be recommended. Talk to your vet about your puppy’s risk of exposure to these diseases.

How They Work

Puppy vaccines are typically first administered at about six to eight weeks of age, then repeated every three to four weeks until the pup is at least four months of age. Some of these vaccines might be given together in one injection that is called a combination vaccine. At your puppy's first veterinary exam, your vet will discuss the schedule of vaccinations and other treatments for your puppy, such as deworming, beginning heartworm prevention, and scheduling a spay or neuter. The vaccine injection itself is typically not painful. Some puppies seem to feel a little pinch or sting while others do not react at all.

Your veterinarian will need to do an examination before vaccinating your puppy. Note that vaccines are not usually given to a puppy with a fever or other signs of serious illness as the vaccine may not be as effective if the body is fighting another infection, and/or could make the puppy feel worse. 

After a vaccine is administered, immunity is not immediate; it takes up to a few weeks to become effective and this varies between animals. Puppies that still have maternal antibodies will not have as strong of an immune response to a vaccine and therefore will be less protected. There is no way to be certain if a puppy still has maternal antibodies, hence the reason for boosters. Complete immunity is uncertain until about four months of age, or until all puppy boosters are completed. Avoid bringing your puppy to dog parks, walking them outside in public places, or otherwise exposing your puppy to unknown animals until all vaccinations have been given. See the chart below for a typical vaccine schedule.

Puppy Vaccine Schedule (Sample):

Age Core Vaccines Non-Core Vaccines*
6 to 8 weeks Distemper, Parvovirus, Adenovirus Parainfluenza, Bordetella, Influenza, Leptospirosis
9 to 11 weeks Distemper, Parvovirus, Adenovirus
12 to 14 weeks Rabies, Distemper, Parvovirus, Adenovirus Lyme
16+ weeks Distemper, Parvovirus, Adenovirus

*Recommendation of non-core vaccines depends on your geographical location and your puppy's environment. Talk to your vet about your puppy's potential exposure. Most veterinarians recommend splitting up some vaccines into different visits to allow for the best immune response.

A Note on Adult Boosters

Most vaccines require a booster within 1 year after the puppy series. After the initial boosters, some vaccines will need to be given annually, and others will only need to be given every 3 years. There is a 3- year rabies vaccine available, for example.

Risks

There are some risks associated with vaccinations though relatively uncommon. Vaccine reactions and side effects are typically mild and self-limiting. Signs may include pain and swelling at the injection site, lethargy or fever. Severe allergic reactions are rare but can be fatal if left untreated. If your puppy develops hives, facial swelling, difficulty breathing, vomiting, or bloody diarrhea, contact your vet immediately.

Because vaccinations stimulate the immune system, there is a small risk of developing an autoimmune disorder after vaccines. This is very uncommon when you consider the small number of dogs who develop these conditions versus all of the dogs that are vaccinated. However, autoimmune disorders can be serious and difficult to treat. Autoimmune conditions that may occur include blood disorders, neuromuscular issues, and even skin problems.

Despite the small chance for potential side effects, the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to puppy vaccines. Sadly, puppies who are not vaccinated are at high risk for contracting diseases which can be very serious, and often fatal such as Distemper and Parvovirus. However, for adult dogs who received a complete set of puppy vaccines, many vets are embracing protocols that vaccinate less often. Once given annually, many adult vaccinations are now more likely to be recommended every three years since there is evidence that immunity lasts well beyond 1 year in many cases. Some vaccines still require annual boosters to be effective including Bordetella (Kennel Cough), Leptospirosis, and Lyme.

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.
Article Sources
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  2. 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. American Animal Hospital Association, 2020

  3. What to expect after your pet's vaccination. American Veterinary Medical Foundation, 2020