Rabies Shots for Senior Dogs: Why I Fear and Loathe Them

I recently received something I have been dreading for some time: a letter from my city animal control department, reminding me that it's time to pay for my dogs' annual licenses and that Otto, my senior dog, needs a rabies vaccination before he can be licensed again.

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I adopted Otto on June 16, 2008. He was brought into the shelter as a stray dog on May 7, 2008. He was estimated to be about six months old, and was vaccinated that day with a five-way vaccination (distemper, adenovirus-type 2, coronavirus, parainfluenza, and parvovirus) and a separate three-way vaccination (adenovirus-type 2, parainfluenza, and bordetella) made by a different company.

On May 14, 2008, he was given a rabies vaccine.

Otto was vaccinated several more times with the five-way vaccines before I adopted him, but I’m not going to talk about those vaccines right now; I want to focus on the rabies vaccine – the only vaccine that dog owners are legally required to give their dogs in most states. Rabies vaccination earned this “special” legal status due to the historical threat that rabies poses to humans; as recently as my childhood in the 1960s, domestic dogs and cats were still common vectors for spreading this deadly disease to humans. Thanks to vaccination laws, this is no longer the case. Today, the most common vectors for rabies are bats, raccoons, and skunks.

Nevertheless, there are laws that require dogs to be vaccinated against rabies in all of the United States. All of the states save three (Kansas, Minnesota, and Ohio) require dogs to be vaccinated against rabies at least every three years; in those three states that lack state laws that require rabies vaccination for dogs, there are city and county laws that require it. (Curious about your state? All of the states’ statutes regarding rabies vaccinations are collected in this terrific website.)

In California, where I live, dogs are required to have their first rabies vaccination at the age of four months, their second no more than a year later, and additional rabies vaccinations every three years after that.

So far, I have complied with my state laws regarding rabies vaccination. Otto was vaccinated for rabies again on April 2, 2009, and again on March 20, 2012.

His most recent rabies vaccination was on October 28, 2015. (Note that we were out of compliance with state law from March 21, 2015 through October 28, 2015.) So he is “due” for a rabies vaccination by October 28 of this year.

Why Should I Dread Another Rabies Vaccine for My Dog?

All vaccinations pose some risk, which must be weighed against their benefit. Since rabies is a fatal disease, is present in the United States, and carried by wild animals (bats, raccoons, and skunks are the most common vectors), and since we live in an area where all three of those vectors are present, I believe that immunization against rabies is a terrific idea. That said, it’s been demonstrated that dogs can be safely immunized against the disease with fewer vaccinations – and that the rabies vaccine can present serious adverse side effects in dogs.

It’s anecdotal, but in my own experience, senior dogs are more likely to suffer adverse effects from rabies vaccinations. My last senior dog, Rupert, had suffered from environmental and dietary allergies his whole life. In his later years, these were fairly well under control, with assiduous management of his diet. But he did have a massive allergy flare-up within a month of his last rabies shot, and getting the allergies under control again took a while. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard friends and acquaintances say, “My senior dog was perfectly healthy until not long after his last rabies shot; he just sort of fell apart after that!” Maybe these were all coincidental; after all, statistically, senior dogs are at higher risk of all health problems. But the risk of these adverse effects is unwarranted in dogs who have already been immunized against the disease!

The Rabies Challenge Fund has been working for a decade to extend the legally required interval for rabies vaccinations to five and then seven years, in an effort to reduce the number of unnecessary vaccinations our dogs would be required to have over their lifetimes. (Note: If you are looking for a great charity to support, consider a donation to this non-profit; their work, which has been funded to date largely by breed clubs and individual dog owners, will benefit countless millions of dogs.)

On January 25, 2018, the Rabies Challenge Fund announced, “Results to date of the Rabies Challenge Fund research study showed protection from live rabies virus challenge five years after the dogs received two doses of rabies virus vaccine. Other data are still being collected and analyzed for the 6.5 and 7-year post-vaccination periods.” In other words, the Fund’s studies are proving what had been hypothesized: the rabies vaccines work for longer than their makers were willing to prove they work, so dogs don’t need to be given as many vaccines over their lifetimes in order to be protected against contracting the disease and/or infecting others.

It will take some time, however, for these promising results to be used to change state laws, to extend those vaccination requirements.

Avoiding Rabies Vaccine Legal Requirements

Currently, there is only one way to get a legal exemption from vaccinating your dog: to have a veterinarian help you apply for an exemption from your state or local animal control authorities. Each state has a different process (again, see the terrific resource, RabiesAware.org); in California, a veterinarian must submit an annual request for an exemption, and be able to verify and document that a rabies vaccination would endanger your dog’s life.

I know people who, unable to convince a veterinarian of the potential risk of a fifth, sixth, or even seventh rabies vaccination to their senior dogs have, instead, reported their dogs to their local animal control agencies as “deceased.”

Given Otto’s high-visibility job (modeling for both WDJ and its Instagram page), I’m not sure I could pull that one off. But I have until October 28 to figure out an alternative. (Although, because my city’s animal control department won’t issue Otto another license until his legal rabies vaccine period is longer than the licensing period, he is currently unlicensed. If he gets picked up as a stray or bites someone before all this is resolved, the fines will be much higher than they would be if he were currently licensed. Not that either of those things are going to happen, but still…)

I don’t want to sound like I’m being frivolous about a disease that can kill people. But again, the possibility that my four-times vaccinated dog could possibly get or transmit the virus is virtually zero – and the possibility that the vaccine could adversely affect him is far higher. I think four vaccines is sufficient, and I’m looking for a way to stay within the bounds of the law while avoiding any more vaccines.

Are you concerned about administering the rabies vaccine to your senior dog? Have you pursued a way to avoid this? Spill it in the comments, below!

115 COMMENTS

  1. I’m at the vet right now- our 15 year old lab needs a Tramadol refill (she is going downhill but the pain med keeps her from crying), they are trying to make me give her a rabies before they refill her pain meds, it’s been 20 months since her last rabies- she is only outdoors 4x a day for walks…I’m furious at the veterinary industry for lack of common sense!

      • Yes it is. My beloved dog (Almost 12 years old) received all of his shots over a year ago. He died of autoimmune disease shortly thereafter. Now I have a soon to be 10 year old dog and I hope she doesn’t suffer the same fate. I’ve been agonizing over what to do. I have grieved so much over the loss of my dog who died in Jan. 2019. I wish the vets would try to help us.

        • My almost 10 year old vibrant, happy , healthy Cocker Spaniel suddenly developed diabetes militias 3 weeks after receiving his 3 year rabies vaccination . He had been in perfect health except for a few food allergies prior to the vaccination, when he suddenly started urinating and drinking a lot. Within a week , I was able to get him to a veterinarian , where he stayed for four days and after blood tests , an x-Ray of his abdomen , iv drips, and other medical procedures and around the clock monitoring, he passed away at the vets!! I know it was the rabies vaccine that caused this sudden health deterioration and I am heart broken! Since then I have been searching the internet to find out if other pet parents have lost their fur babies after receiving a rabies vaccine.

      • Let’s not paint the whole industry with such broad strokes. ANd don’t forget that vets are bound by the laws, at risk to their licenses. That being said, my veterinarian decided to stop vaccinating my immune-compromised dog on the theory that the vaccine wouldn’t produce the correct reaction and she was immune anyway at that point. Veterinarians in general are very dedicated to the well-being of animals. It is an extremely stressful job, and I am really tired of all the internet “experts” who treat them like they are the enemy. WDJ should be ashamed of articles like this.

        • Joe Lynn, no one should take on the SHAME of anything and it is quite extreme that you are saying “lets not paint the whole industry” people posting here have every right to the freedom of their own opinions with their pets, Some people have to go to great lengths to protect their aging furry friends and I’m sorry that you are really tired of internet “experts” maybe you should spend less time reading their blogs and posts and volunteer at an animal shelter so we don’t have to read your insensitivity, We don’t all have the luxury of a vet who will stop vaccinations. And on a side note Joe Lynn less than 1-3 people get rabies a yr not due to vaxx but due to how rare it is anymore – yet we vaxx 76 million dogs and 95 million cats that’s approx 172 million vaccines for just cats and dogs in the US. That’s for a VERY rare disease. Now you honestly tell me who really should be ashamed of this 2 Billion money making agenda !!

    • My vet gave my 16 year old Pomeranian a rabies shot during a visit to check his heart meds. He’d been doing well for an old guy, but was dead in 2 weeks. Because of Covid, I had stayed in the car and was not aware she was going to give a rabies shot. Never again !

      • Oh no! I’m so sorry to hear. We tried to get our 13 year old Pomeranian exempted but the state’s Vet said “…kidney disease, cancer, seizures, etc. were not valid reasons(!).” He suggested we choose the one year rabies vaccine and then if our dog experienced problems, then to resubmit for an exemption and they will “re-evaluate.”

        I researched a few holistic remedies that might help so am trying Jackson Galaxy’s “Vaccine Detox” and will pray that it works for our dog (he started experiencing seizures after he received the 3-year rabies vaccine at age 10). He was having fewer episodes over time but now we’re concerned they will start up again more strongly after he receives the vaccine next week.

        it’s time for the research on over-vaccination to be shared more widely and for vets to seriously consider the ramifications. Vets need to start being the “kind, caring” people they are supposed to be. My two cents.

  2. My baby girl Chihuahua is almost 16 years old, blind, deaf, has very bad allergies and can hardly walk. She is never outside our house in public. She had a bad reaction to the rabies shot 4 years ago. 2 years ago I took her to my Vet and it cost me 5 times the amount to give her a higher quality shot (without damaging additives) and a anti-allergy medication. Now she is due for her shot again and I am already a week late. I just don’t know what to do. I am so afraid for her to have the shot and last time the doctor would not give me an exception. (I guess it would be a liability). Yikes, I just don’t know what to do. Really she could go any day now, but she is not suffering or appears to be in any pain and she still eats regularly.

    • I hope you did not take her for her rabies. Please do not take the risk of making her suffer during what’s left of her time with you on earth. (this message was originally meant for you but I posted it above to Tara by mistake. Though it certainly applies to her situation as well)

    • My chuhuahua was 16 and a half . Took him for his rabbies and vaccines and had to put him down 48 hrs later . The vet diagnosed a heart murmur right before the shots were given and did not warn me of any harm it could cause knowing my dog had bad arthritis . Im beside myself with greif and lost my best freind all because i thought i was doin the right thing . He became so ill could not walk , vomiting wouldnt eat then completley limp . I told the vet and his cure was me buying pain meds which i ran to his office and did . Almost 500.00 later and my little freind is gone forever . Im literally sick over this.

    • Joy, I took my 15-year-old Yorky and for a rabies vaccination and within a few days she had some swelling on the side of her lips and in less than a month she had cutaneous lymphoma and I had to put her down. Hardest thing I’ve ever done but when I asked the vet if the rabies shot had anything to do with her auto immune disease they said they didn’t think so but somewhere in my heart it was the beginning of the end for my sweet little girl😢 I wish there was somewhere to report this!

  3. I almost lost Penny..She developed Immune Mediated Thrombocytopenia…She was a rescue and over vaccinated…NO more vaccines for Penny vet said….She survived but we went through hell and back with her treatments but me made it. She went into remission and passed at 15 1/2 from congestive heart failure 💔

    • I had two maltese dogs that also developed Immune Mediated Thrombocytopenia right after receiving the rabies vaccine. They had to be hospitalized for a few days, but luckily made it through. I think that the dosage should be much less for a smaller dog than a bigger dog. I had to pay a lot to get a titer to prove that each one had enough rabies shots over their lifetime so that they didn’t have to get any more rabies shots.

  4. My 15 year old Basenji is a month past due for her vaccines. She had some sort or stroke or seizure a couple months ago and was temporarily paralyzed. I thought I was going to have to euthanize her, but now she is nearly back to normal. I just can’t see giving her a vaccine. I would just skip it all together, but I’m out of HeartGuard. What to do?

  5. Are facing the rabies overdue challenge with our 14-year-old Chihuahua. She has a history of seizures, “chuffing” with just minor exercise or when she gets stressed, back and mobility issues–all of which we’ve worked very hard to keep under control with a variety of “tools.” She can go from zero to super-stressed in a few minutes, which brings on labored breathing and seizures if we don’t intervene. I’ve requested an exemption from our vet. Don’t have a final answer yet, but I’m trying to stay in a positive frame of mind. Thanks to all who have shared their stories and concerns. Hoping for positive outcomes for all.

    • Hello, I hope you’re doing well. Find where you can buy an aloe vera stalk, cut the skin off, take the gel and put it in your Chihuahuas food twice a day. you’ll see the seizures will stop after a short while. In the meantime when she has a seizure, ice her back and if you have a good quality CBD oil spray give a couple of shots in the mouth and the seizure will end much quicker. If you’d like to give me a call I can explain it all to you about my chihuahua. 203 353 0232. My name is Bert

  6. My 11 year old male Chihuahua was fine until he received his yearly Rabies Annual Booster-DHLPP Annual Booster on July 3, 2019. He seemed ok the first few days after his shot . But something has been ‘SLOWLY’ affecting him almost daily since. He drinks 6 to 9 cups of water at bedtime and while I’m trying to sleep. He wakes me up because he’ll stand in his double sided water bowl wanting more. Then of now he urinates so much, and so often on his dog pads, I only have 4 pads left out of a 100 count box that I bought on the 1st of July. So now he has no energy/desire to stay awake much. He also has cloudy, watery eyes and is getting a film/matter on them, which clean off whenever I see it. He also has started to lick his nose a lot. I’m taking him to the same Vet that gave him his shots, because it’s their fault this is happening, and they should know what to do. I’m changing Vets after this is over. I just want Max to be okay and make it through this nightmare !!!

    • I’m so sorry to hear about these situations regarding the rabies shot and such. My dog Scooby a red min pin had CHF he was 16 years old when he was given a rabbles shot. He was at the vets office for. Physical because they wouldn’t fill his heart meds until he had his annual exam. They gave him the rabies shot saying it won’t hurt him if he had one within the three years. After the exam and rabies shot my dog started to decline, that very evening. Didn’t hardley eat, very weak, just not his usual self. He kept declining only drinking bits of water and barely able to stand as he was so weak. He would look at us with this very sad face and try and wag his tail a little. 😢. My dog went for this exams and Is forsaken rabies shot on July 10th he passed away on July 25th, 2019 @ 530 a.m. I know he had heart issues but this rabies shot and the stress at the vets office, really did him in. So I will never get a rabies shot for any of my dogs again after his first set of immunizations. Btw I did go back to the vets office for a conference to advocate for my dog and any other animal and others to come about the treatment at a vet office and tabbies shot for the elderly dogs. But of course they don’t want to hear you. So we went back and forth for a little while. But at least my voice was heard. So my suggestions is to everyone plz plz plz be a voice for an animal, child, elderly anyone! We can make the difference.

    • Hi Tersa I’m so sorry to hear about your pup. Same thing happened to me read my post. They will never take the blame. We just basically toke a holistic approach with Scooby as the vet will supposedly try and save him. However charging you an arm and a leg to tell you there’s nothing else they can do. Euthanize him and cremate him (is that really my dogs ashes?! or burial. I’m sorry to be so harsh but it’s reality and I have been through this plenty of times (plenty of dogs) with going to vets, shots, exams, dogs over night stays just to stay in a cage as old as they are looking and being poked by people they don’t know and you can’t go see them maybe for a few minutes. So I ask myself what quality of life is that for our babies?! So never again I would rather have my baby at home set up a hospice room or little corner with pillows and such making him as comfy as possible and take the hollistic approach, they also said hemp
      Oil works for discomfort. Best of luck to you and your baby.. 🐕🙏

    • I am so sorry to hear your stories. This happened to my (at the time) 11 year old Maltese after his rabies vaccine. It is two years later and they are wanting me to get another vaccine. Did your dog develop Cushing’s disease? That is what happened to my boy. Your dog’s symptoms sound just like it. I am still thinking of a way to avoid this because my dog is on medication for Cushing’s that is so helpful. If he doesn’t have his medication, he gets very sick again. Sigh.

  7. my beautiful little friend rocky just died.i took him in for a nail clipping and teeth cleaning. the vet then gave him a rabies shot. one week later he stopped eating,had diarea,was drinking a huge amount of water,had little energy,and worst of all was having horrible seizures.he was 15yrs old and never had a serious sickness. I know it was the rabies shot that killed him , but the vet denies it. I feel so guilty that I didn’t protect him when he needed me. I wish the vet would have warned me that the shot could cause death to senior dogs.

    • I’m so sorry and so very upset with Myself for getting the rabies shot from my 12 year old Maltese. We moved from New York to Florida. I wanted to get her groomed because she’s so hard for me to Do. Took her to a new vet who I had recently been to with my other dog and liked. I spoke to him about two shots she would need to get groomed in Florida. I didn’t want to give her two and asked if he thought she would be ok with the rabies. If only I had researched before I did this. 😞. The vet agreed to not give to my other dog and I have to say he is a good vet, but it upsets me now that he must know how so many dogs have had reactions from rabies shots. The night after her shot she woke up middle of night and started acting all hyper and twitching her head. She could not stop breathing heavy which continued nonstop. Couple of weeks later she woke up and started running around and around the house like she was racing. She wouldn’t stop. It was 3 am. Not to long after she had a grand mal seizure. Shortly after the seizure she had another one. She would not stop pacing. I raced her to a new vet as the one I went to was closed. They took her right away. She collapsed there and looked to be having another seizure. Doctor gave her a shot. They did blood tests and physical. The way she was acting was like she was poisoned. She could not sit still, falling over practically walking into things. All her bl