Vaccination Guidelines for Dogs (2017 Protocol)

Updated on February 26, 2018
Bob Bamberg profile image

Bob has been in the pet supply business and writing about pets, livestock and wildlife over a period that spans three decades.


Why Are Vaccine Protocols so Highly Debated?

For decades, the veterinary community in the United States has been struggling with vaccination protocols for dogs. The continuous problem is that researchers just don't know enough about the canine immune system to establish specific protocols for that species. Another issue is that some dogs have adverse reactions to some vaccines, ranging from soreness or inflammation at the injection site, to more serious consequences such as breathing difficulties or seizures. The possibility of such side effects is influencing pet owners' decisions regarding vaccination.

The more serious reactions are uncommon but they do happen, and the internet and social media have become repositories for vaccination horror stories. Similar to the horror stories of pet food killing pets, almost all of the vaccination horror stories have no basis in fact or are largely exaggerated. Many people end up believing that vaccinations are bad just as they believe commercial pet food is bad.

Vaccines Remain the Most Cost-Effective Tool Against Infectious Disease

Add the disdain and distrust many hold for “big pharma," and we’ve arrived at a time when more and more pet owners are questioning the need for vaccinations. In the rush to condemn vaccinations, it seems that many pet owners have lost sight of the fact that vaccination remains the safest and most cost-effective tool against many infectious diseases.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), the organization that accredits veterinary hospitals in the U.S. and Canada, has established guidelines regarding vaccination recommendations. The guidelines were created in 2017 by the AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines Task Force. As stated on the AAHA website:

“ . . . the Task Force includes individuals with extensive experience in primary care practice, academia, shelter medicine, public health, and veterinary law related to clinical practice.”

Why Follow Vaccination Guidelines?

The emphasis is on the word "guidelines," recognizing that a number of factors contribute to an individual dog’s vaccination recommendations. It’s a living, online document, subject to updates as new information becomes available, that serves as an educational resource for veterinarians and pet owners. While only about 15 percent of veterinary hospitals are accredited (accreditation is not a requirement in the U.S, as it is in hospitals for humans), most veterinarians will follow the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines.

Created by five expert veterinarians and 18 contributing reviewers, the guidelines, which underwent a formal external review process, are a combination of clinical experience and scientific evidence. As has been the case for decades, there are core and non-core vaccines. Core vaccines are recommended for every dog; non-core vaccines are recommended for dogs at risk for contracting specific diseases or viruses.


What Are the Core Vaccines?

The core vaccines include rabies (which, by law, must be administered by a licensed veterinarian and is required by law in all 50 states), distemper, adenovirus-2, parvovirus, and parainfluenza, with the latter four usually given in a single combination shot. Beyond that, the recommendations diverge.

For instance, in my home state of Massachusetts, Lyme disease is relatively common, therefore, that vaccine might easily be considered core whereas it wouldn't be considered core in Montana, where the disease is uncommon. Then, there are the factors peculiar to your individual situation.


Veterinary Detectives

Your veterinarian will do a little sleuthing to determine the specific vaccination recommendation for your dog. Do you bring your dog to dog parks, day care centers, or groomers? Does your dog compete in shows, swim in freshwater lakes, or do you live on converted farmland?

There are many factors, some quite obscure, that would put your dog at risk of contracting certain diseases. Your vet probably wouldn’t think of all of them, either. So, AAHA came up with a resource for veterinarians called the Lifestyle-Based Vaccine Calculator.

The calculator "thinks" of things you and your veterinarian might not think of. Here are a few examples:

  • Does the dog walk or lay on soil where wildlife or livestock could have urinated?
  • Does he drink from freshwater rivers, lakes, or puddles?
  • Does he spend time in a yard currently or previously used by livestock?
  • Does he spend time in an environment with a high population of wild rats?

Does My Dog Need Booster Shots?

What about booster shots? Most vaccinations only require a booster every three years, but each dog’s immunity is as individual as he is. You might consider having titers performed. These are blood tests that measure the amount of antibody response the dog has to specific diseases.

You have to also keep in mind that no test is absolutely accurate. Therefore, most vets will recommend routinely vaccinating for specific diseases that may be common in a specific geographic area. Vaccines, such as for Lyme disease in Massachusetts, may be considered core in a specific area.

Special Considerations

The 2017 Guidelines also address some special situations:

  • Dogs with an unknown or out of date vaccination history. Recommendations for core and non-core vaccinations are offered.
  • Shelter dogs. These animals are at a higher risk of contracting infectious diseases that can be prevented by vaccination. A section in the guidelines deals with shelter dogs and those in long-term shelter situations.
  • Antibody testing. There’s a section in the guidelines that deals with indications for testing and also suggestions for follow-up based on positive or negative results. Knowing antibody status is important for dogs currently in chemotherapy, dogs on drugs that suppress the immune system, dogs that have previously reacted adversely to vaccination, and dogs with an unknown vaccination history or that are overdue for vaccination.

Contrary to what Dr. Google may say, serious vaccine reactions are rare and the AAHA holds the position that the risk of contracting a dangerous disease by not vaccinating a dog outweighs the potential for vaccination side effects.


American Animal Hospital Association

  • 2017 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Bob Bamberg


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      • BellatheBall profile image


        16 months ago

        Sorry if I wasn't clear. The client was asking about skipping all vaccines, not just optional vaccines, like bordetella.

        Unfortunately, there are some vets who will vaccinate a dog with everything they can get their hands on just so they can charge the owner a fee. Obviously, we can't agree with this.

        But most dog owners must rely on the vets recommendations because there is little other guidance out there. That is why articles such as yours are very important.

        And again, thanks for writing it.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        16 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hello, BellatheBall. I agree with you that the core vaccines should be given, but beyond that, I believe each dog's individual living conditions, etc. should be taken into account for any other vaccinations. Even for myself, I resist taking medications and inoculations unless necessary. I'm dealing with a medical issue and my doctor strongly recommended I get a flu shot, so I did. The only other time I took a flu shot was a few years ago when my daughter in law was pregnant. I've made it 71 years without getting the flu (I don't want to get cocky here) so I'm willing to take my chances. But, I yielded to my doctor's advice this time. But, when we're making decisions for others, even pets, I think we must do so with less bravado and more caution. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      • BellatheBall profile image


        16 months ago

        Thank you so much for this excellent article of vet advice! I am a Master Dog Trainer and was recently asked by one of my clients if their 'healthy' young dog would be fine skipping recommended vaccines. Of course I responded with a resounding NO!

        I am old enough to remember the tragedy of puppies dying unnecessarily from distemper and more recently from parvovirus and that is not anything someone should ever want to see.

        Always get your dog vaccinated!

      • DrMark1961 profile image

        Dr Mark 

        17 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

        Cynical--that means like a dog, right? You can look that up in the Holy Word According to Wikipedia! I think any philosophy named after a dog has to be all right.

        Ajej is just sleeping under the table but Nicki is bouncing around on top of my roof. It is like having a cat on a hot tin roof. Thanks for sending them a message.

      • Bob Bamberg profile imageAUTHOR

        Bob Bamberg 

        17 months ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

        Hi Doc,

        Being that one owner out of 10,000 would really suck, but you won't convince the other 9,999 that they made the wrong decision. While there's no way of knowing what percentage of those dogs would have become sick and possibly died without the vaccination (my hunch, a very mall percentage), you can't deny the lives saved by the vaccines.

        Here in the colonies rabid pet animals are almost unheard of nowadays. Every summer the local paper carries a story or two or three about a rabid skunk, fox or other wild animal that tested positive for rabies. Last summer the neighboring town had a woman bitten by a coyote which turned out to be rabid. I can't remember ever hearing about a local pet that was found to be rabid.

        While the rabies vaccine has certainly been a factor in protecting pet animals, leash laws enacted in the 1980's factor largely as well, because dogs aren't roaming the town anymore.

        While some pet cats are still let outside, the vast majority have been made into house cats because of an education effort on the part of shelters, rescues and veterinarians, and because of public pressure.

        Here in the people's republic of Massachusetts, cats, dogs and ferrets are required to have up to date rabies vaccinations. Three year re-call is popular.

        I like the AAHA guidelines, in that they make it clear that you should discuss vaccinations with the vet and take into consideration your dog's risk of contracting particular diseases for which there are vaccines. I'll bet in most cases the risk is minimal and inoculations should reflect that.

        As a lay person, I'm not as knowledgeable as you, as a veterinarian are, which may explain why I'm not quite as cynical as you are...but I'm getting there. You're rubbing off on me!

        You always add to the discussion and make me think some more. Please give Ajej a chin scratch and Niki (is that your monkey's name?) a banana for me. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

      • DrMark1961 profile image

        Dr Mark 

        17 months ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

        Hi Bob, I agree that vaccination reactions are rare but if you happen to own that one puppy out of 10,000 that dies after a vaccine, that does not help much. If you have that cat that never goes out but are convinced to vaccinate it, and then your cat dies from a vaccine induced sarcoma, no one from AAHA is going to convince you that it was still an okay risk.

        How many cases of distemper even walk into an AAHA hospital anymore? The standards say core, but is core even justified?


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