Almost 300 dog owners tuned in to a webinar last week to hear Jean Dodds, D.V.M., talk about “New Life-Changing Vaccination Protocols.”

Although recommended protocols – for dogs at least – haven’t changed since 2011 when the American Animal Hospital Association released revised guidelines developed by its Canine Vaccination Task Force, owners and veterinarians have been slow to adopt the guidelines’ recommendation: “Life stage and lifestyle, risk of exposure, and underlying medical conditions should all be considered when developing a vaccination protocol.” In other words, not every dog should have even a core vaccine even if it has been three years since it last had one.

Although Jean Dodds, D.V.M., cautions against over-vaccinating, she supports all puppies receiving a series of core vaccinations. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

Webinar host Laura Simonson of the website, Indogo, introduced Dodds as “the top woman in the world to share this kind of information today.” Indeed, Dodds has been researching, studying and advocating for responsible administration of vaccines for decades. She served on previous vaccination task forces, which have been crafting guidelines since the early 2000s.

Dodds opened the webinar by stressing that no one is advocating for a vaccine-free canine or feline world. The AAHA guidelines suggest that all puppies must have an initial series of core vaccines – distemper, parvovirus, hepatitis, adenovirus and rabies – and that those vaccinations must be timed to protect the puppies, but also to create immunity after their mothers’ antibodies have passed from their systems. In addition, young dogs living in areas overrun by leptospirosis and other diseases will need vaccines to protect them. Dodds, however, does not recommend the hepatitis vaccine for all puppies.

For adult dogs age 3 and older, however, Dodds takes a hard line that there should be no such thing as “routine” vaccinations. In fact, she’s supervising a project to test rabies vaccines to determine their actual duration of immunity, to challenge the assumed three-year duration.

Behind the need to give vaccinations only when necessary and to prove how long they last are the risks associated with vaccines.

To demonstrate how vaccines sometimes “go bad,” Dodds showed a diagram of the intersection of four circles: genetics, virus, sex hormones and stress. When any of these are combined with a vaccine, it can result in autoimmune disease. “It’s really important to remember that these things work together,” Dodds said.

A number of factors can lead to adverse reactions to vaccines, including genetics, sex hormones, stress and viruses. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

So, she advises not to vaccinate a dog that’s been exposed to a fungus, parasite, drug or any other toxin until it’s completely recovered from that exposure. And a dog should not be vaccinated when it’s coming into heat, she said, nor during estrus, pregnancy or lactation. It’s not just bitches for which she has concern. Intact males living with bitches in estrus or about to be used for breeding or actively breeding should not be vaccinated, she says. Neither should a dog receive a vaccine just before or soon after a major stressor, such as moving to a new household. Dodds reminded that vaccines are to be administered only to healthy animals. “It says so right on the label,” she said.

Dodds spent quite a bit of time explaining the many benefits that vaccines have brought to our world, both for people and animals. Those benefits, however, do not mean that every dog owner should simply acquiesce when a vet tech or receptionist says, “it’s time for vaccinations again.” It’s a matter of weighing the benefits against the risks, she said.

Dogs over 10 years of age don’t need vaccine boosters, according to Jean Dodds, D.V.M. Photo by Can Stock Photo.

In addition, thanks to the growing popularity of titering – measuring antibodies to a virus in the blood – it’s easy to find out if your adult dog is protected from a particular disease. With a draw of blood and a test in a lab, or even in the veterinary clinic, your veterinarian can determine whether your dog’s last booster for distemper, for example, is still viable. One such test, VacciCheck, can determine immunity from hepatitis, parvo and distemper from a single blood sample. If antibodies remain, there’s no need for a vaccination. Dodds says titer tests should cost between $40 and $60, and if your veterinary clinic is charging a lot more, they’re taking advantage of the situation.

When asked how accurate titers are, Dodds response was: “Very. Every lab does them now.” This is a dramatic change from 2000 when “people didn’t even know what they were,” she said. In addition, she pointed out that “any measurable titer means you have immune memory cells. It doesn’t matter what the number is.” If the dog is exposed, those cells will react and duplicate to fend off the disease.

Dodds is so hard-line on not over-vaccinating that, in answer to several questions about veterinarians who won’t discuss or won’t consider not following an every-three-year protocol or are still recommending annual core vaccines, she advised finding another practice. She also pointed out that holistic veterinarians tends to be more open to considering custom protocols, rather than simply following a guideline designed for the average, healthy dog. It’s easy to find holistic vets at the website of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association.

She also talked about a fairly new concept in small animal disease prevention – herd health. It’s been determined, she says, that about 70 percent of a herd must be protected against core diseases for the vaccines to control their spread from animal to animal. In the U.S., only about 50 percent of dogs and 25 percent of cats are, indeed, protected.

That does not mean, however, that your dog needs a vaccine every three years. It most likely means that a lot of puppies never get their first series of vaccinations. And, she says, about 50 percent of non-protected puppies exposed to a core disease will die.

Dodds uses the term “non-protected,” rather than non-vaccinated, because not every puppy or dog that is vaccinated is actually protected from that particular disease. Some dogs simply do not respond to vaccines, so never develop the antibodies to be protected. Others are low responders, and don’t respond enough. Either way, this is a genetic trait, Dodds said, that will likely be passed along to any offspring.

For breeders who want to eliminate this trait from their lines, titer tests done before making a breeding decision can prove that the dog has responded to its vaccines – or not.

Dodds also recommends starting puppies’ vaccination series later – at 9 to 10 weeks of age – except in the case of a single dose of parvovirus. This means many puppies will already be in their new homes when the series starts. After each vaccination, the puppy’s behavior and health should be monitored. And, she says, any puppy or dog that has an adverse reaction to a vaccine should never receive that vaccine again. She also advises that last of the vaccine series should be given between 14 and 16 weeks of age when the dam’s antibodies will not neutralize the vaccine.

At the other end of the age spectrum, Dodds said that after age 10, dogs simply don’t need vaccines or titers. They have had enough vaccine to last the rest of their lives by then, and there’s a bigger chance an old dog will have an adverse reaction.

Replays of the two-hour webinar are available from Indogo for $10, with $5 of that charge going to the Rabies Challenge Fund.