Ask the Expert: Why does my puppy need vaccinations?

Dog bed and bowls? Check! Food and Treats? Check! Toys, collar, leash? Check, check, check? That’s almost everything you need when bringing home your new dog.

Providing a puppy, in particular, with the best start in life not only includes the best food, toys, socialization, and loving home you provide. It will also include choosing a veterinarian and getting your puppy set up on a vaccine schedule. If you are bringing home an older dog, it’s always a good idea to bring them into your veterinarian for a wellness check, but a new puppy will need a series of vaccines to protect them from a variety of diseases. Wag Hotels had the opportunity to ask an expert for more information on the kinds of vaccines puppies get. Dr. Carrie Bagshaw, DVM, is a veterinarian in Los Angeles and provides us with the reasons why getting your puppy started on a vaccine schedule is important.

Replace the Antibodies the Pup was getting from its Mom

“For puppies, usually if they’ve been with their mother and been nursing, they get maternal antibodies from before they are born, and from nursing.” Dr. Bagshaw elaborates: “The presence of those antibodies then are protective for some of those things that the mother has been vaccinated for, in those first few weeks of life, but then they taper off. So we don't know exactly when that (tapering) happens for a puppy, so the vaccine schedule is intended to try to simulate (antibodies) and allow (a puppy's) immune system to start picking up the slack and take over and begin making those antibodies on their own. You want to try and start (the vaccine schedule) right when we’re expecting the maternal antibodies to taper off.”  

Prevent Dog to Dog illness

The first diseases you’ll want to vaccinate against are distemper and parvovirus. Dr. Bagshaw explains why: “Distemper is a viral infection that's fairly easily transmitted from dog to dog. They can be infectious before they are showing overt symptoms, so it can really spread in a population, similar to kennel cough. Usually it will start off with (the symptoms of) an upper respiratory infection. Often times, if they get through that phase of it, then they can get sick with an upset stomach and gastro-intestinal symptoms. The third phase of the infection can set in where it can cause neurologic symptoms. Often, dogs that have been infected with distemper, as puppies can, have what we call, little “bubblegum seizures” where they can get teeth chattering. Many of these dogs will go on and begin to have seizures, and seizures, and seizures where they will die or need to be euthanized. It can also cause some defects of the enamel if the permanent teeth are developing while they have that infection. So it's really important that (dogs) be vaccinated for distemper because it’s so infectious and has a pretty high mortality rate.”  

Protect them from the Environment

Parvovirus is hugely important for puppies to be protected against, because it causes severe vomiting, diarrhea; it really causes them to slough the lining of their whole intestinal tract. Many of these dogs don't make it. It’s usually quite an expensive hospitalization to try and get them through it and a lot of them won’t survive that infection, plus, anything that was contaminated with their vomit or diarrhea, unless you can bleach it, that virus can live up to a year on that surface. Parvovirus is the reason why we recommend that puppies have really limited contact with going outside and walking around places where we don't know who’s been there in the last year, and limiting contact with unvaccinated dogs.”

Typically, your veterinarian will vaccinate against distemper, parvovirus, and canine adenovirus 2 (dog hepatitis), and frequently, parainfluenza in one “bundle” of vaccines. 

“In other parts of the country, leptospirosis would also be included in those vaccines.” says Dr. Bagshaw. Leptospirosis is more common in some areas of the country, and whether or not your veterinarian advises a dog to get vaccinated against it, can vary from region to region. Another vaccine that is sometimes recommended is canine influenza.

“Depending on your area, people may be recommending (vaccinating against) canine influenza if you’re currently having outbreaks. It’s like getting the flu vaccine for people. If there is an outbreak in our region, we will reach out to our pet owners and recommend that their dogs who go to the groomer, spend time at daycare, who are boarding, who spend a lot of time at the dog park or are real social on walks, that they be vaccinated against influenza, as well.” 

Another disease that you may have heard of is bordetella, more commonly known as canine or kennel cough. A bordatella vaccine is frequently required by boarding facilities and groomers. While bordetella is similar to the common cold in people, if untreated, it can lead to complications.

“We do typically vaccinate puppies for bordetella, as well” says Dr. Bagshaw. “Usually, they are more susceptible, than adult dogs, to the secondary pneumonias that can develop if they get bordetella infection. Not because bordetella will potentially be fatal, but because it does damage the lining of the respiratory tract when they get that infection, then it makes them susceptible to secondary pneumonias.”

A Schedule Maximizes Immunity

It may seem like a lot of vaccinations, but there is a typical schedule most veterinarians will layout for a new pup that's easy and important to follow.

“Usually people begin vaccinating (their dogs) between 6-8 weeks of age, with the first distemper/parvo vaccination. And oftentimes that will also have the parainfluenza and adenovirus 2, as well, in it. They should be boostered every 3-4 weeks through 16 weeks of age. Around 12 weeks, we’ll do a bordetella vaccination, and depending on whether they are getting the injectable, you may need to do a booster for that. If they are getting one of the modified live vaccines, which is given orally or intranasally, then those don’t typically need to be boosted, so you might get one or two depending on which one your veterinarian gives first. Legally, after 12 weeks of age, dogs can have the rabies vaccine in the state of California. It used to be 16 weeks, so that age has been lowered a little bit, but most veterinarians will give that vaccine about 2 weeks after they finish their distemper/parvo series.” 

Legal Vaccine Requirements

The most infamous pet disease is rabies. “The rabies vaccine is the only one required by law in all states in the US, if you want to get a rabies exemption, you have to have a documented health condition where the dog has either had a very severe allergic reaction that (is such that) you could absolutely not vaccinate this pet again, or they have a terminal cancer or immune disease that would prevent a (veterinarian) from wanting to vaccinate with rabies. Those regulations have been tightened up a lot in the last several years. The rabies vaccine was originally mandated in dogs to prevent people from getting rabies and dying, since (rabies laws) have been passed, rabies deaths in humans have declined really dramatically.” 

The California rabies law can be found in the California Health and Safety Code. There is no cure for rabies, which is why immunization is the best defense against the disease. Your dog is required to have the rabies vaccine as part of your pet registration with local authorities. Requirements may vary between municipalities, but the rabies vaccine is the only vaccine that is required by law.  

Puppy Wellness

By 18 weeks of age (roughly four and a half months old), puppies are typically done with all their puppy vaccine series. 

Dr. Bagshaw points out another great reason to have your puppy come in for their vaccine schedule:

“The reason we love seeing these guys is not just because they are absolutely adorable, but when they come in and get those puppy check ups, we’re checking to see if they are gaining weight appropriately and maintaining a healthy body condition, are they growing they way they should be growing? Are there any behavior problems coming up? Any little skin things we want to be looking at, etc. We are also looking to see when their permanent teeth begin coming in and if there are any issues in the mouth we want to be mindful of before we are spay or neutering. The vaccines are really important, but so are those puppy check ups to make sure we get them off on the right foot.”

Dr. Bagshaw also recommends dog owners visit The American Animal Hospital Association, for more information on vaccines. 

“They publish updated canine vaccination guidelines. Every several years, they get together panels of experts of epidemiologists, immunologists, internal medicine specialists and go through risk/benefit analysis for different types of dogs and publish these recommendations. So for the shelter environment: what do you want to be doing, a puppy at home: what do you want to be doing, so most veterinarians are going to follow these guidelines.” 

Another great resource for dog owners is the American Veterinary Medical Association. They post lots of great information and medical journals for the medical and non-medical community. You can visit for more information.  

Note: This is intended for informational purposes only and is not a resource for diagnosis or specific medical advice. If you have questions about your dog’s vaccines, always consult your veterinarian.

Photo by Berkay Gumustekin on Unsplash