Vaccinations key to preventative healthcare

“Your pet depends on you, as owner to keep him or her healthy and vaccinations are one of the most important preventative measures you can take to protect your pet from viral and bacterial diseases, which could be fatal,” says Dr Kevin Solberg of TAH (Durbanville).

“Pets tend to explore and are very likely to come into contact with an infectious disease – whether in an airborne state or through bodily fluids. During such an encounter, the immune system mounts a response to protect the pet against the diseases that may cause the infection. A healthy pet and a healthy immune system are required in order to build these protective antibodies in response to a vaccine. Vaccinations thus teach the immune system to recognise infectious agents so that it is ready to respond to a disease,” he adds.

Most of the diseases we vaccinate our pets against have no cure and, as a result, veterinary treatment largely supports the animal in the hope that their immune system can overcome the infection.

The Role of the Immune System

A pet’s immune system plays a huge role in how the pet reacts to vaccinations. There are, however, steps that a pet owner can take to enhance their pet’s immune system and ensure that vaccines work best:

  • Stick to the vaccination protocol. People often bring in their pet for the first vaccination and then come at irregular intervals and not according to the vaccination schedule.
  • If your pet has not had the ‘puppy injections’ at the appropriate time (6, 8, 12 and 16 weeks), you can still bring in your pet to be vaccinated.
  • Ensure your pet follows a healthy diet and adhere to its deworming schedule. Animals that have a poor diet usually have a lower immune system, as well as those with gut problems.
  • Protect your pet against external parasites (like fleas, ticks and mosquitoes that can spread harmful illnesses to your pet), as well as internal parasites (like roundworms, hookworms, tapeworms and coccidia) that could potentially be deadly in some circumstances.
  • Minimise exposure to diseases prior to the body developing its own vaccination response /protection. We always advise people to not take puppies to high-risk places like parks and beaches before their puppy vaccinations have been completed, as it might increase the risk of vaccine failure. Pups and kittens are especially vulnerable as their immature immune systems can’t fight off diseases as well as older dogs and cats

Benefits of Vaccinating

  • Diseases that were once widespread and deadly can now be prevented thanks to the efficacy of vaccinations.
  • Vaccinations safeguard your pet’s health.
  • Vaccines protect you and your family. Some serious diseases like Rabies and Leptospirosis are transmittable from pets to people, and vaccinating your pet is crucial to the safety of your family.

What Vaccinations Are Needed

You and your vet will have to work out a preventative care programme for your pet, which starts with vaccinations. The vet will look at which diseases will be prevalent in your area and lifestyle, as this will influence which vaccines need to be administered. For instance, if a puppy will be going to puppy classes, puppy day care or kennels, the kennel cough vaccination needs to be added to their vaccine regime.

Why does my dog need to be vaccinated every year?

  • One vaccination will not provide life-long coverage against some of the diseases.
  • To prevent diseases from spreading in the canine or feline population.
  • Your pet may require vaccinations to travel with you.
  • Many kennels and dog trainers require your pets to be vaccinated if you want to use their services.
  • Even if you keep your pets indoors, many contagious diseases are spread by air so they’re still at risk of infection.

Vaccines Not Only Benefit Single Animals

“Vaccinations not only benefit an individual animal, but also the community. Just as with kids going to preschools, the problem comes when fewer people vaccinate and you have a much higher population that are susceptible, creating prevalence of the disease,” says Dr Solberg.

“Protecting your pet helps to protect everyone else’s pets as well because the more pets that are immune to a disease, the more difficult it will be for a disease to spread. “

In order to have an effective herd immunity against a disease, we need that more than 60% of the community must be immunised. If 75% of the population is vaccinated against a certain disease, the chances are that the disease will cease to be a problem for us (that’s how we got rid of smallpox and rinderpest, and how polio has disappeared from many countries). However, in South Africa, we sit at something between 12-15% of pets vaccinated, so every vaccinated animal count.

How Effective are Vaccines?

Like any drug treatment or surgical procedure, vaccinations cannot be 100% guaranteed. But used in conjunction with proper nutrition and acceptable sanitary conditions, vaccination is your pet’s best defence against disease and is also the more cost-effective option (paying for vaccinations versus treating a possibly lethal illness which could result in death).

When Should You Vaccinate?
Young puppies are protected by immunity passed on from their mother, but this decreases quickly, hence the need for puppy vaccinations and, thereafter, annual vaccination boosters, to ensure your pet remains protected.

Illnesses Vaccines Try to Prevent

Rabies: A deadly disease of animals and people that affects the nervous system (Brain) and, once symptoms show, there is no treatment available.
Parvo: A highly contagious and infectious gastrointestinal illness in puppies and young dogs and, without treatment, it could be deadly.

Distemper: A potentially fatal contagious disease that attacks the respiratory, gastrointestinal and nervous systems of dogs.

Adenovirus / Canine Hepatitis: A virus that causes upper respiratory tract infections and could affect the liver and be potentially deadly.

Parainfluenza: A contagious, non-life-threatening cold-like condition that causes coughing and can lead to diseases like kennel cough.

Leptospirosis: A bacterial illness causing symptoms like high temperature, severe thirst, increased urination and abdominal pain. It may cause permanent kidney / liver damage.

Kennel Cough: A harsh cough that leads to gagging and vomiting. If left untreated it can develop into severe bronchopneumonia.

Rhinotracheitis: An upper respiratory or pulmonary infection of cats that is caused by the herpes virus, affecting vision and respiration.

Calicivirus: An infectious virus that is one of the main causes of respiratory infections in cats

Panleukopaenia:  A viral disease of cats, often called feline distemper, is highly contagious and can be fatal, especially in kittens

Feline Leukaemia:  A virus that can be lethal if not defeated by the animal’s immune system.

This may be different if you are travelling abroad or to high-risk areas.

Side Effects of Vaccinations

As with people, there could be some side-effects with vaccinations, but they are usually mild and short-lived. These include:

  • Pain, swelling, or redness where the shot was given.
  • Mild fever.
  • Feeling tired.
  • Muscle and joint aches.

“In most cases, the risks associated with vaccination are much smaller than the risks of contracting a disease. Serious side effects such as an allergic reaction are possible, but instances fairly rare, and the wide-ranging benefits of vaccinating far outweigh the potential risks,” stresses Dr Solberg.

How Long Does a Vaccine Take to Work?

Once a vaccine is administered, the antigens (virus particles in the vaccine) must be recognised, responded to, and remembered by the immune system. In most puppies, disease protection does not begin until five days post-vaccination. Full protection from a vaccine usually takes up to 14 days.

Costs Of Vaccinations

Costs is one of the deciding factors when determining treatment for your pet and people tend to use cost as an excuse not to vaccinate. The reality, however, is that the sum of costs of a pet’s introductory, as well as annual vaccinations are far less than having to pay for treatment of a dreadful disease like Parvo (treatment can range anything between R6000 to R15 000 on average), if your pet survives.

Included in our cost of vaccines is a consultation, which gives the vet an opportunity to check the teeth, eyes, ears etc. and to ask seemingly innocent questions that may point to an illness or problem that can be very innocuous. It also gives you the chance to ask the vet about any concerns you might have.


Given the fact that so few of the total population of dogs and cats in South Africa are not immunised, there is an almost non-existing herd immunity as we have with humans for dog and cat diseases. All animals do not have equal immune systems, and therefore those that do not respond well enough to vaccines rely on herd immunity to prevent the spread between non protected animals. Apart from the 5-in-1 vaccine (Parvo, Distemper, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza and leptospirosis) which is advised, Rabies vaccination is needed by law. Rabies is a terrible disease that kills all animals that contract it and humans that do not get post exposure vaccination.

If you are concerned that your animal is being over vaccinated, we can do a titre test to test the level of antibodies in your pet’s blood. If they are high enough, your pet is protected and does not need a vaccination. These tests are however often a lot more expensive than vaccinating. “

It will be the ideal to test for each and every possible illness and every patient’s vaccine reaction, but cost wise it will not make sense, as the price of testing is very expensive. As an example, a Rabies test, normally done for emigration purposes, amounts to R3500, while the cost implication of adding Rabies into our standard vaccinations is just about R20.

“A lot of the reaction to ‘over-vaccination’ is from people who, unfortunately, do not have any medical background. These opinions are often emotional and not objective. Another factor to think of is that vaccines overseas are not necessarily the same as in South Africa – theses include what the vaccines are made up of and how it was made. I have seen people suggesting a pet should only be vaccinated every 7 years – this is equivalent to almost 50 human years, which is not an appropriate gap to consult a physician,” Dr Solberg explains.

“At every vaccination, the vet does a clinical and gets updated history on the pet. I’ve picked up so many early kidney issues, arthritis issues, discussed chronic meds etc with a vaccination. Vaccination remains the single most effective method for protecting against infectious disease in healthy animals,” he concludes.

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