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The Ultimate Guide to Vaccinating your Fur Friend

Written By
Reviewed by
Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM
14 min read

Updated - Aug 6th, 2021

Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM.

In an age of pandemic, vaccines are the talk of the town. But our furry friends need to be kept safe from diseases too, which is why the topic of vaccinating your pets is our topic of the month (it also happens to be National Immunization Awareness Month)! 

There are few things more heartbreaking than watching a puppy or kitten suffer from a nasty parasite or a fit of coughing. In this article, you’ll learn how vaccines can help you and your veterinarian set your pet up for a healthy life and protect them against dangerous – and often contagious – diseases along the way.  

What is a vaccine?

First things first: what’s a vaccine? How does it work for your pet?

Vaccines give your pet’s immune system the boost it needs to help fight the invasion of disease-causing organisms. Antigens in vaccines are able to trick your pet’s immune system; they look like the organisms that cause the disease but don’t actually make your pet sick. However, the immune system still works to provide an effective immune response, so that if your pet ever comes into contact with the real disease-causing organisms, their immune systems will have already mapped out the battle. In other words, vaccines work the same way in pets as they do in humans. And they work – fur real. 

Why is it important to vaccinate your pet?

You want your pet to live fur-ever, right? Vaccines are one of the easiest ways to ensure that your fur friend lives their longest and healthiest life, as vaccinations have prevented the deaths of millions of lovable animals. 

But vaccinations aren’t just important for keeping your pet happy and healthy. They’re important for you, too. When you vaccinate your pet at the right time, you can avoid having to shell out hundreds (or thousands) of dollars to treat a costly disease later. What’s more, there are some diseases that can be passed from pet to human, and there’s no bigger nightmare than having a whole household down for the count, including your innocent dog or cat. 

What are the core vaccines for dogs?

These core vaccines are vital to all pups based on risk of exposure, transmissibility to humans, and severity of disease. They include:

  • Canine Distemper Virus, Adenovirus-2, and Parvovirus (+/- Parainfluenza Virus) Combination Vaccine: 

This combination vaccine protects against three different canine diseases:

  • Canine Distemper Virus: Dogs can’t get the measles, but they can get distemper virus, which is a not-so-beloved member of the same family. Most commonly transmitted by direct contact or through the air, symptoms include fever, loss of appetite, lethargy, ocular and nasal discharge, coughing, vomiting and diarrhea, paralysis, and more. With no cure, it’s a serious disease that can often be lethal – or cause severe neurological damage to dogs who survive it. 
  • Parvovirus: This is a highly contagious virus commonly called “parvo,” and it affects dogs’ gastrointestinal tracts, causing loss of appetite, abdominal pain and bloating, fever or low body temperature, vomiting, and severe (often bloody) diarrhea. Unfortunately, there’s no “magic pill” to kill off the virus; treatment is often costly and consists of isolation and intensive care to control symptoms while their immune systems fight the infection. With proper treatment, survival rates can approach 90%. 
  • Parainfluenza Virus: Like Adenovirus-2, Parainfluenza virus is another cause of kennel cough. The symptoms and treatment are the same – but a vaccine can help.

This combination vaccine, that may or may not include Parainfluenza virus, should be administered when a pup is as young as 6 weeks old, and then sequentially at an interval of 2-4 weeks until they’re at least 16 weeks of age. If your pooch is exactly 16 weeks old, then they should be given an initial shot and a booster 2-4 weeks later. Another dose of the vaccine should be administered within one year following the final dose of the initial vaccination series, and after that, every 3 years.

  • Rabies Vaccine: Rabies is an incurable virus that attacks your pup’s brain and spinal cord, most commonly passed through a bite wound from an infected animal. The virus can enter the bloodstream, and once symptoms appear, the virus is fatal in dogs. When you think of Rabies, you probably imagine a dog foaming at the mouth, which may occur, or may manifest instead with excessive saliva or drooling. Other physical symptoms include fever, difficulty swallowing, staggering, seizures, and even paralysis. Behavioral symptoms include restlessness, irritability, aggression, and sometimes even uncharacteristic affection. 

Despite the scary prognosis, this disease is very preventable with a vaccine. A puppy should receive a rabies vaccination when they are no younger than 3 months of age. If an adult dog has an unknown vaccination history, they should also receive a single shot as soon as possible. Your pup can receive either a 1-year or a 3-year labeled vaccine. Rabies vaccination is required by law for registration of dogs with your local county in most areas. 

What are the non-core vaccines for dogs?

Non-core vaccines are optional vaccines, to be considered based on your dog’s individualized exposure risk, which depends on factors like geographic location, lifestyle, and their overall health. The non-core vaccines that may be recommended to you by your local veterinarian include: 

  • Canine Parainfluenza Virus and Bordetella Bronchiseptica Vaccine: These tongue twisters are both agents that cause kennel cough. 

This intranasal vaccine should ideally be administered when your puppy is between 8 and 16 weeks old, though it may be administered as early as your dog’s 3rd or 4th week, if he or she is at high risk. After that, if your dog continues to be at risk, they should get a single dose one year following the initial vaccination, then annually. 

  • Bordetella Bronchiseptica Vaccine: There is also a vaccine available that singularly targets the Bordetella bronchiseptica virus, and was created to be given to dogs that are considered highly social and active. It can be administered in three ways:
    • By shot: Two initial doses 2-4 weeks apart, beginning as early as your dog’s 8th week. 
    • Through the nose: A single dose that can be administered when your pup is as young as 3-4 weeks old. 
    • Orally: A single dose, given as early as 8 weeks old. 
  • Canine Influenza Virus (Virus-H3N8 and Virus-H3N2) Vaccine: Canine influenza is a contagious respiratory disease otherwise known as “Dog Flu.” It’s caused by an influenza A virus, and like the human flu, there are multiple strains: H3N8 and H3N2. Symptoms include coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, runny eyes, fever, lethargy, and difficulty breathing. While there is no cure, your veterinarian can advise you about how to keep your pup comfy (and isolated!) throughout recovery. Also, great news: the virus is rarely fatal. It’s airborne, which means crowded areas like kennels, grooming parlors, day care centers, and dog parks are the most likely risk factors. 

The dog flu vaccine works the same way as the human flu vaccine. With both the H3N8 and H3N2 strains, two different vaccines are available. They both require two initial doses administered to dogs 6-8 weeks or older, and then annually. Your veterinarian may recommend the combination vaccine if you and your pup live in an area prone to the dog flu – or if you spend a lot of time in spaces packed with puppies (and it’s hard for us to imagine a better fate!). While this vaccine does not completely prevent dog flu, it can reduce transmission and clinical signs associated with the virus. 

  • Leptospirosis Vaccine: This vaccine protects against the Leptospira bacteria, which can originate in contaminated soil and water. Symptoms include fever, shivering, muscle tenderness, reluctance to move, increased thirst, irregular urination, dehydration, vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite, jaundice, or eye inflammation. Severe cases can lead to lung disease or kidney failure, sometimes accompanied by liver failure. Treatment – which includes antibiotics and supportive care – can be effective when caught early. Otherwise, your pup might suffer permanent organ damage, or even death. 

Your pup’s first leptospirosis vaccine – which can be given as early as 8-9 weeks – should be followed by a booster 2-4 weeks later, followed by an annual vaccine. 

  • Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme) Vaccine: You’ve most likely heard of Lyme disease, which means you may know that it comes from ticks. Ticks that carry Lyme disease are often found in thick grass, brush, marsh, and woods, waiting to latch onto your dog as they come wandering by. Once a tick’s bacteria enters into your pup’s bloodstream, it can cause fever, loss of appetite, reduced energy, swelling of joints, lameness, pain, and more. The treatment plan usually includes antibiotics and other therapies as needed, which often resolves the disease quickly. 

If you live in a particularly woodsy area and your pooch spends lots of time outdoors – or if you’re traveling to a Lyme-disease hotspot – your veterinarian might recommend a vaccination. Though it’s not 100% effective, it can help reduce risk. All Lyme vaccines work by binding Lyme disease causing bacteria in the gut of the tick, sterilizing the tick and preventing further transmission of Lyme. A pup can receive their initial dose as early as 8-9 weeks old, followed by a booster 2-4 weeks later, but the course-of-action is the same regardless of age. After that, annual boosters are recommended for dogs in high risk areas. 

  • Crotalus atrox Vaccine (Rattlesnake Vaccine): You can likely guess where this disease comes from: a bite from a rattlesnake. If your pup is bitten, you’ll see two wounds from the snake’s fangs that swell up quickly, followed by excessive drooling, panting, and restlessness. Delayed symptoms might include collapse, diarrhea, increased swelling, lethargy, muscle tremors, and more. When you bring your dog into the veterinary hospital for treatment, they’ll provide supportive care that includes IV fluids, pain medications, and antibiotics. While the prognosis is usually better for larger vs smaller dogs, severity can depend on the species of rattlesnake. Bites on the trunk of a dog’s body are more deadly. Whether or not your dog receives a rattlesnake vaccine, if bitten by a rattler, they will need emergency care. 

This vaccine is recommended for dogs who live in populated rattlesnake areas, or that will be traveling to one. Dosing and frequency depend on the dog’s body weight and exposure risk. 

What are the core vaccines for cats?

Now, onto our favorite felines! Cats need their vaccinations, too, and have core and non-core vaccines, just like dogs. 

  • Feline Panleukopenia (Distemper – FPV) + Feline Herpesvirus (FHV-1) + Feline Calicivirus (FCV) Vaccine: 

This combination vaccine protects against three different feline diseases:

  • Feline Panleukopenia (Distemper): Feline panleukopenia virus, also known as feline distemper, is highly contagious and life threatening. It attacks the cat’s cells – including their white blood cells – making it impossible for them to fight off any disease. Symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, weight loss, high fever, loss of appetite, and more. Treatment requires hospitalization. If the cat survives, full recovery can take up to 6 weeks.
  • Feline Herpesvirus: Herpesvirus is a common cause of eye and upper respiratory infection; it’s highly contagious and spreads quickly in multi-cat households or shelters. Once the virus enters the cat’s body, it’s there forever, but reactions depend on the individual cat. Some cats will develop inflamed nose and eyes (that can lead to permanent deformity) while others will suffer chronic, recurrent nasal and sinus inflammation. In most severe cases, cats can show signs of cough, sneezing, poor appetite, and conjunctivitis. Treatment works to control symptoms and can include antibiotics, and in cases of excessive swelling, surgery. 
  • Feline Calicivirus: Feline calicivirus is a respiratory infection and oral disease that most often infects young cats living in multi-cat environments, though most recover without complications (unless affected by a rare and more fatal strain). Symptoms for milder strains include what looks like the common cold, with sneezing, nasal congestion, and sometimes a fever. However, worse strains can cause a higher fever, swelling of the head and legs, crusting sores, and bleeding under the skin. This disease requires supportive treatment until symptoms subside. 

There are many ways this combination vaccine can be administered, and the course-of-action depends on the shot you choose. Your veterinarian can help you pick the best one for your kitty: 

  • By shot (live vaccine): For young kittens, the shot should be administered at no earlier than 6 weeks of age and then in a sequence of 3-4 weeks until the cat is 16-20 weeks old. Cats older than 16 weeks should receive either one or two doses of the vaccine. Either way, they should be revaccinated every 3 years. 
  • By shot (inactive vaccine): Similarly, this shot should be given to kittens no younger than 6 weeks old, then every 3-4 weeks until the cat is 16-20 weeks old. Older cats should receive 2 doses 3-4 weeks apart. Again, revaccinate every 3 years. 
  • Intranasally (live vaccine): This nasal mist should be administered to your kitten at no earlier than 6 weeks, then in a sequence of 3-4 weeks until they reach 16-20 weeks. Older cats need one initial dose only. Either way, the vaccine requires an annual booster. 
  • Feline Herpesvirus (FHV-1) and Feline Calicivirus (FCV) Vaccine: There’s also a vaccine that protects only against FHV-1 and FCV. This is an intranasal vaccine that your kitten can receive at as young as 4-6 weeks of age and then in a sequence of 3-4 weeks until they’re 16-20 weeks old. Cats who receive an initial dose when they’re older than 16 weeks need only one dose. Again, boosters should be provided annually. 
  • Feline Leukemia Virus Vaccine (FELV): This vaccine guards against a deadly virus that is a leading cause of death in the cat population, second only to trauma; it kills about 85% of infected felines within three years of diagnosis. Spreading through saliva, blood, or urine and feces, symptoms of this virus include pale gums, a yellow color appearing in the mouth or in the whites of eyes, enlarged lymph nodes, weight loss, weakness, fever, difficulty breathing, bladder infections, and more. Treatment means frequent veterinary visits that include tests, examinations, and parasite control that will monitor and manage the Leukemia virus. 

There are two vaccine types – recombinant and inactive – to choose from for your kitty. Both vaccines operate on the same schedule; they should be administered 3-4 weeks apart when your cat is as young as 8 weeks old. Your cat should get a booster one year after the second dose, and then higher risk cats – cats in shelters or who spend lots of time outside – should receive the vaccine annually. 

  • Feline Rabies: Feline Rabies is just like canine Rabies; it’s transmitted through the bite of an infected animal and can cause severe physical and behavioral symptoms. Once symptoms set in, the disease is nearly always fatal. Symptoms include change of behavior, aggression, drooling, loss of muscle control, and more. Unfortunately, at that point, there’s nothing you or your veterinarian can do to treat it. But again, the vaccine is nearly a foolproof guard. 

Guidelines for the Rabies vaccine for your cat vary on a state-level, but it’s recommended no matter where you live. 

What are the non-core vaccines for cats?

The non-core vaccines that may be recommended to you by your local veterinarian based on your cat’s individualized exposure risk include: 

  • Bordetella: Bordetella causes an upper respiratory disease in cats, and is related to the bacteria that causes kennel cough in pups. Spread through saliva, it’s most common in multi-cat locations like shelters and breeding homes. Symptoms include retching, sneezing, watery nasal discharge, coughing, and pneumonia, and the disease can often be treated with antibiotics – though they’re not always effective. 

This vaccine is live and intranasal, and frequency and interval instructions vary. 

  • Chlamydia: It’s true: cats can get chlamydia, too. Feline chlamydia manifests in an eyes, nose, or throat infection that is spread through close cat contact. It can be treated with a course of oral and topical antibiotics, which are often effective. However, if one household or shelter cat tests positive for chlamydia, every cat should be treated as symptoms don’t always appear.

Available vaccines include both live and inactive vaccine options, but guidelines for frequency vary. 

The bottom line?

If you can’t imagine your life without your best fur friend, make sure they get their core vaccines (and any non-core ones your veterinarian recommends) on a routine basis, starting when they are puppies and kittens. If you adopt an adult or senior dog or cat, ask the shelter about any vaccines they may have already received and work with your veterinarian to get them on a routine schedule from that point on. 

There are lots of nasty diseases out there, and vaccines can save your pet’s life while saving you lots of time, money, and heartache. Believe us: watching your beloved pet squirm in the face of a needle is a lot less difficult than the potential consequences of a disease, like Rabies, Distemper, or Parvo.

While preventive care is the best way to protect your pet, ruh-rohs can still happen. If your pet catches a disease, Pumpkin Pet Insurance can make it easier to afford the best care possible, even if it’s costly. Pumpkin also offers an optional, non-insurance preventive care add-on pack called Preventive Essentials that fully covers 4 vaccines for puppies, 2 for dogs, and 1 for kittens or cats each year! While not an insurance benefit, this optional pack can be purchased with your insurance plan. 

We hope you found this guide helpful. One last tip! Whether you have a new puppy or a senior cat, keeping a record of their vaccinations can help you stay on schedule – and help them stay healthy. Here’s a printable vaccination tracker you can take with you on your pet’s next wellness visit!

Download Vaccine Tracker Card

Passionate Pet Experts & Parents
We are a team of writers, designers & product developers who all double as passionate (ok, obsessive) nerds of the pet world.
Reviewed by Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM