Veterinary Exploration of Canine Vaccination

Vaccines can save lives – and they can cause health problems, too.


Here’s an indisputable fact: Vaccines have saved millions of lives. The vaccine discoveries of medical pioneers such as Edward Jenner and Louis Pasteur introduced a new era of health care for humans. Smallpox, once the most feared disease in the world, is thought to be eradicated. Ask any senior citizen to name the great medical advances of this century, and he or she will invariably list the polio vaccine.

Veterinary exploration has kept up with the rapid pace of human vaccine research. Today, non-feral rabies is a rarity. Distemper has become an almost completely avoidable tragedy. Research is underway to invent vaccines that can mediate an immune response against even fleas and ticks!

But here’s a highly disputed fact: Vaccines have also compromised the health and well-being of an untold number of dogs.

No one disputes the fact that for a tiny minority of dogs, vaccines can be dangerous. For reasons that cannot be accurately predicted, some individuals – puppies in particular – react badly to the same substances that save the lives of many others. Some dogs get sick immediately following vaccination, sometimes contracting the disease they were inoculated against. However, it’s hard to prove a link between illness and vaccines when dogs get sick weeks, months, or even years after receiving them.

Even so, more and more holistic veterinarians believe that vaccination is behind many of the diseases seen in our dogs today, including autoimmune system failure, cancer, allergies, and even behavior problems. These practitioners believe that it is unwise to vaccinate dogs in less than perfect health; that if you fail to take illness into account, even minor infections or chronic skin irritations, and vaccinate anyway, you might well create more problems than you’ve solved.

To understand how these practitioners have come to this conclusion, it is important to know how vaccines work.

The immune system
Like our own, a dog’s body is continuously invaded by infectious agents. Arrayed against these agents (called pathogens), the body has an astonishingly sophisticated defense. What follows is a highly simplified account of how a healthy immune system responds to a serious attack.

When pathogens enter the body, most often via mucous membranes, open wounds, or airborne particles, they soon encounter circulating white blood cells (called neutrophils and macrophages) which identify and destroy foreign cells, whether viral, bacterial, or fungal. At the same time as this initial “skirmish,” complex lines of communication are opened.

It is one function of the macrophage, for example, to alert the type of lymphocytes called helper T cells (so called because they derive from the thymus), which arrive at the site of infection, identify the invader, and immediately begin to multiply. Aptly named, these helper cells then chemically summon additional cells.

At this point, several other types of T-lymphocytes arrive like the specialists of an army division, and undertake a number of assigned duties. Cytotoxins, to name one, literally break apart invasive cells, whose infectious contents are then destroyed.

Meanwhile, B (bursa-derived) lymphocytes begin to circulate, in the form of highly specialized proteins called antibodies. These antibodies – crucial to immunization – are specific to the antigen which caused their creation. Imagine the antigen (short for antibody generating) as a combination lock for which the antibody alone knows the code.

As infection subsides, then, two other lymphocyte types take their place. The first of these, suppressor T cells, perceive, in essence, that the battle is won, and signal the “front-line” lymphocytes to withdraw. The second, somewhat like regimental historians, are the “memory” lymphocytes, which imprint the chemical identity of the invader, and continue to recognize it even after an absence of many years.

In the story of vaccination, this is where the trouble seems to begin. Under certain circumstances – preexisting illness, concurrent drug therapy, stress, hormonal imbalance or genetic impairment – vaccines can trigger unforeseen reactions in the host, ranging from minor to chronic to life-threatening. These reactions occur in one of two ways, either hyperactive (auto-immune) or hypoactive (immune-suppressant).

Vaccine theory
To recapitulate, the body builds immunity at the time it is invaded by disease, responding by producing antibodies to that specific agent. In each of us, this process happens countless times in the course of our lives. In perfectly healthy individuals, canine or otherwise, immune systems work very well – they kill the invading virus or bacteria, and leave the dog in a state of readiness to fight the invader again. There exist, however, strains of virus and bacteria so dangerous that more dogs succumb to them than live to fight another day; these are the diseases for which we have developed vaccines: rabies, distemper, and the like.

Vaccines are a short-cut to the dog’s immune response. We give him a tiny, highly modified form of the infectious agent designed to trigger an immune response just as though he had encountered and defeated the disease, and is ready to battle it again.

Newborn puppies receive a varying amount of immunity from their mother’s first milk, called colostrum. The amount varies based on how much of the colostrum they were able to drink (some puppies lose out if they are too weak to nurse or if they are rejected by their mothers), and on how much immunity their mother had to confer, based on her past immunizations or brushes with disease. Immunization programs are initiated when puppies are between six and 16 weeks of age, as the maternal immunity they received from their mothers diminishes, so they are protected.

It is hardly in dispute, even among the most skeptical critics of mainstream vaccination protocols, that puppies need to be protected. But vaccinating puppies has its risks, too – statistically fewer risks than not vaccinating, but risks nonetheless.

The problem is simple, yet so complex it defies solution. Vaccines are designed for an average immune system; they bring immunity to a model. For square pegs, genetic or otherwise, models can be cruelly exclusive. Because all immune systems are different, vaccinations are a highly uncertain proposition, neither 100 percent effective in preventing disease, nor comfortably close to 100 percent safe.

To illustrate this, it is helpful to begin not with dogs but dog owners, because far better records exist quantifying the health risks for humans. Some infants and children get sick – and a few die – after receiving standard childhood vaccines. This number is enough, in fact, that in 1986, the United States Congress established the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, a no-fault compensation program which pays up to $250,000 for vaccine-related deaths, and helps defray the expenses of long-term care associated with catastrophic reactions.

As of 1996, some 5000 petitions had been filed; pay-outs totaled more than $650 million. (The system, by the way, is funded by a surcharge on each dose of vaccine sold.)

Again, when it comes to vaccines, the canine dynamic is much like our own. While there is no such compensation program for dogs, there is no reason to doubt that vaccine-related deaths and injuries are a significant problem for them, too. Vaccine injury statistics are inaccurate even for humans; many doctors are unaware of their responsibility to report problems, or simply don’t bother, even for seriously reactive children, unless the symptoms are life-threatening. While similar reporting mechanisms are in place for dogs and other animals, they are even more underutilized.

Aspects of misuse
Two major aspects of traditional vaccination usage have been implicated in these problems: Vaccinating vulnerable individuals, and vaccine over-marketing and consequent overuse.

We’ve already mentioned one important sub-group of the “vulnerable individuals”: the puppies and dogs who appear perfectly normal, but whose immune system responds to vaccines in a statistically abnormal fashion, causing illness or even death. Unfortunately, there’s no way to be certain in advance of actually administering the vaccines whether your new puppy is one of those individuals. You pay your money, as they say, and you take your chances.

But there is another very large group of vulnerable dogs who would benefit from a change in standard vaccination protocol, if only someone would notice their vulnerability. These are the dogs who are sick at the time of vaccination. The problem is, most people don’t understand that common symptoms – such as chronic skin problems, intestinal inflammation, eye or ear infections, hypersensitivity to common environmental agents such as flea repellents, dust, and pollen – are signs that the dog is sick and may be immune-impaired. And dogs with major disease processes such as lupus, hyper-thyroidism, epilepsy, diabetes, kidney or renal failure definitely aren’t well enough to be safely vaccinated.

The inserts that come with all vaccines clearly state that dogs who are ill should not be vaccinated. A conventionally trained veterinarian would probably only recognize a dog with overt symptoms of illness, such as fever or infection, as too sick to vaccinate. Holistic veterinarians do not hesitate to include dogs who are stressed, malnourished, or whose immune system has been compromised by previous disease or recent drug therapies into this group.

Some of these conditions are temporary, and in these cases, you can wait a while, and vaccinate when the dog is well again. But holistic veterinarians suggest that chronically ill dogs should never be exposed to the challenge of a vaccine, especially if the dog had ever responded adversely to vaccinations in the past.

Vaccinating vulnerable individuals is one way we know we can cause disease. The second way is simply by vaccinating too much. Traditional vaccination schedules call for dogs to receive a “booster” shot annually. Boosters are supposed to remind the immune system (“Remember me? Keep your defenses up!”) to stay ready to attack agents of specific diseases. Without a periodic reminder, the body may begin to cease production of those particular antibodies, leaving the dog undefended.

The best way to determine whether or not the dog’s immune system is keeping its defenders on standby is a blood serum titer test. Current research suggests that for most dogs, protection continues beyond the current one-year standard. However, individual responses to vaccines are more important than the time frame for administering them. One of the most vocal and prolific veterinary vaccine researchers in this country, W. Jean Dodds, DVM, is a proponent of titering to determine the need for boosters.

Devoted researcher
Dodds, of Santa Monica, California, is also calling for increased scrutiny of standard vaccine protocols. She began sounding the alarm in the early 1980s that heedless vaccination protocols were triggering immune dysfunction in dogs. She was also one of the first veterinarians to begin publicly questioning the recommendations for vaccination set forth by the American Veterinary Medical Association. “I’ve been asking questions from the start,” Dodds says. “A lot of things didn’t make sense to me.”

For example, Dodds asked why vaccines are administered in the same volume regardless of breed, age, and size of dog, from whippet to wolfhound. She wondered by what logic the frequency of vaccination for at-risk puppies was being increased, rather than decreased by some veterinarians. Knowing that vaccines can cause problems, why, Dodds has asked, are we not pursuing a more sophisticated methodology?

As much as she has criticized the vaccine protocol most commonly accepted in this country, Dodds is not against vaccination per se. “There isn’t any question,” she says, “that vaccines are better now than 20 years ago, that the vaccine manufacturers remain committed to improving them. The fact is, we have the luxury of even holding this conversation today because diseases which were rampant 30 or 40 years ago are now under control.

“But vaccines have been too much of a good thing. The philosophy has been, if one is good, then more is better. So now are we causing disease by weakening the immune system. And vaccines are meant to protect against disease.”

The annual combination booster vaccines that most dogs receive, she believes, are storing up trouble for many dogs. These boosters challenge the immune system even of healthy dogs, and confuse and distract the immune systems of sick dogs.

Vaccination alternatives
Rather than suggesting that people simply not vaccinate their dogs, Dodds has developed an alternative vaccination protocol that she uses successfully in her practice. Instead of being avoided, in Dodds’ protocol vaccines are treated respectfully as a calculated risk; the administration of only certain types of vaccines, administered in a much more sparing fashion than convention allows, helps the owner reduce the risks to his or her dog’s health.

Some of Dodds’ recommendations include discontinuing the “kitchen sink” boosters altogether; giving simpler boosters (for distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and possibly leptospirosis) every three years instead of annually; ceasing (in most cases) all boosters after the dog is 10 years of age; and avoiding use of bordetella, coronavirus, and Lyme vaccines unless the dog lives in an area where these diseases are endemic. Dodds uses only killed vaccine for rabies.

Dodds and other holistic veterinarians generally encourage dog owners to be inquisitive about any vaccinations that their veterinary professionals recommend. Suggestions for wise vaccine use include:

• Take the time to think about your dog’s medical history, and his current state of health the next time you receive a “Vaccinations due!” postcard from your veterinarian. Legally, you don’t have to vaccinate your dog for anything except rabies. How and when vaccines are administered to your dog should be an informed responsibility. If your dog is ill at the time of a scheduled booster, wait until he or she recovers.

• If your dog suffers from an immune disorder, or is one of the breeds of dogs susceptible to immune dysfunction, see to it that your veterinarian gives only those vaccines necessary for your dog’s life-style. Consider the possibility that, other than for rabies, your dog’s vaccinations might be postponed indefinitely.

• While modified-live vaccines now dominate the market, have your veterinarian administer killed vaccines wherever possible. While providing less sustained protection than modified-live vaccines, they also bring a margin of safety to susceptible dogs.

• If your dog has suffered a serious vaccine reaction, consider nossode vaccines as an alternative. While this technique remains controversial, and scientifically unproven, clinical nossode studies are currently underway. Nossode vaccines are unsurpassed in safety; their efficacy remains in doubt. Discuss the issue with your veterinarian.

• Ask your veterinarian about serum titer tests, which measure antibodies present in the blood, most commonly for parvovirus and distemper, the two viruses targeted in combination DHLPPC boosters which are most often fatal, particularly in puppies.

If titering shows sufficient antibodies remain, you might choose to revaccinate your dog less frequently. Remember that while titer tests provide a more accurate picture of immune memory than the mere fact of vaccination, they do not guarantee the dog’s immune system will respond appropriately and vigorously when it is needed – but then, neither does a vaccination.

In a dog’s life, the variables are too complex for guarantees. The rest is up to you and your veterinarian.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Smart Vaccination for Dogs is Not Anti-Vaccination”
Click here to view “Dog Vaccination Information”
Click here to view “Holistic Veterinarians Take On the Annual Vaccination Schedule”

-By Roger Govier

Roger Govier is a freelance writer living in San Francisco. After researching this story, he says he’s not sure he’s going to vaccinate his two mixed-breed dogs ever again.