Rabies Vaccine Side Effects in Dogs

Veterinarian giving injection to dog
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A rabies vaccine reaction can cause serious problems, but any vaccine has the potential to cause a reaction. It happens when some dogs' immune systems are overloaded and unable to deal with the vaccine(s) appropriately.

The vaccine reaction can come from the disease itself—in other words, the amount of virus or bacteria in the inoculation causes disease rather than preventing it. Vaccine failure, on the other hand, refers to the vaccination being unable to protect against challenge—the exposure to the agent it should protect against. Other times reaction could arise from the adjuvants in the vaccine designed to stimulate the immune system's response.

Potential Reactions

Immediate reactions are things that you can see either immediately or within a day of receiving the vaccine.

  • Anaphylaxis
  • Facial swelling
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hives

There is no first aid for vaccination reaction. Consider this an emergency and take your dog to the vet immediately, even if it is a mild reaction. That way your vet can both record it on his notes to be aware of in future vaccinations and also report it to vaccine manufacturer and federal overseeing body. Remind your vet in the future of his reaction, and especially let any veterinarian who is not your regular vet know about the reaction.

Will He React Again?

If your puppy suffered a mild reaction, your veterinarian should advise you on future vaccination protocols. Generally, there are three possible scenarios with subsequent vaccinations:

  • Nothing will happen.
  • He will have the same reaction.
  • He could have a worse reaction such as life-threatening anaphylaxis.

Rabies is the only vaccine that is legally required, and it must be given by a veterinarian. If your dog has had a bad reaction to a rabies vaccine, you can ask your vet to write a letter stating that your dog has the potential for a life-threatening reaction to another dose of vaccine. It’s up to the governing bodies in your area whether they will exempt your dog or not.

Signs of Delayed Reactions

Each vaccination may have specific signs of reactions. There are severe reactions (Type I) that typically occur within hours to days after vaccination, and also delayed reactions, both medical and behavioral.

The delayed reactions are not so clear. That’s because they may start within a week but can last much longer. Other times they only show up weeks later. These delayed reactions remain controversial as to whether there is a direct link to the rabies vaccine. Conventional mainstream veterinarians including Dr. Linda Breitman would like a more direct cause-and-effect scientifically established. Holistic veterinarians such as Dr. Jean Dodds believe there is a direct vaccination link to a wide variety of medical and behavioral concerns, listed below. 

Medical reactions

Behavioral reactions

  • Aggression to animals and people
  • Aloofness
  • Clingy, separation anxiety, "velcro dog"
  • Confusion
  • Desire to roam
  • Destructive behavior, shredding bedding
  • Excessive barking
  • Fly snapping
  • Increased sexual desire, sexual aggression
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Restraint leading to violent behavior and self-injury
  • Self-mutilation, tail chewing
  • Suspicious
  • Unaffectionate

Caryl Wolff is a Los Angeles-based dog trainer and dog behavior consultant certified through IAABC, NADOI and CPDT and other canine professional organizations. She can be reached through her www.DoggieManners.com site.

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.