11 FAQs About Puppy Vaccinations


I’ve talked about vaccinating your dog previously in Dog Vaccination Q&A, and given the importance of regular vaccinations, I think it warrants a re-visit – this time, to talk specifically about puppy vaccinations.

Now, there are people who will tell you that vaccinations are not necessary, and could even be harmful – I’m not one of them. A while back, there was a study done that suggested vaccinating children against serious ailments could cause autism – the study was quickly de-bunked and slammed as being bad science. Think about this, too – when was the last time you heard of anyone in the United States having polio? I’m thinking probably never. Why? Because we vaccinate against it.

So how do vaccines work? Some will tell you that when you vaccinate your dog against rabies, you are actually giving him rabies. Well, in a way, you are. But what you’re giving him is a form of the disease that is so suppressed it is to all intents and purposes dead, and your dog’s natural immune system works against it, becoming stronger, and ultimately making your dog immune to rabies.

No one who really loves their dog and has so much as a grain of common sense is ever going to consider not vaccinating. And in the early stages of your dog’s life, you will need a number of vaccinations. So, let’s talk about vaccinating your puppy. The following FAQs should get you started, and if you have questions or concerns, I’m confident that your veterinarian will be happy to give you all the information you need.

1. Why Does My Puppy Need So Many Shots?

There are a lot of really common, really contagious diseases out there, and your puppy needs to be protected. As to the number of shots, much depends on where the puppy was born and raised. A puppy that is born in a kennel operated by a responsible breeder will likely need fewer shots than, say, one that was born in an animal shelter. A single parvovirus/rabies combo may be sufficient for a puppy in a good breeding facility, but if born in a shelter, six or seven different combinations may be required before the puppy can be declared immune from various diseases.

What you need to keep in mind is that puppies are like snowflakes – no two are exactly alike. And most of the time, the owner of a new puppy will be confused as to why multiple shots are necessary. Generally speaking, your veterinarian will recommend that your puppy be vaccinated against parvovirus, distemper and canine hepatitis multiple times, beginning at the age of 4-6 weeks. Then shots will be needed every 3-4 weeks, until the age of 16-20 weeks. Usually, to achieve full immunity, a minimum of four vaccinations will be required.

2. So My Puppy Needs Booster Shots?

Not exactly. Multiple shots are not given to “boost” immunity. Rather, your vet does a series of shots to make sure that your puppy’s immune system gets the immunization at the most desirable point – in other words, your puppy has a number of times throughout his growth cycle when the antibodies will respond to disease antigens. These points are hard to identify, so shots are done repeatedly to make sure that they are effective.

3. Antibodies, Antigens – I Don’t Understand the Terminology. What’s It All About?

Okay. An antigen is something that causes the puppy’s immune system to respond. This is what we talked about above, the dead virus that activates the natural immune system. The antigen is similar to the live virus, but not active, so it can’t make your puppy sick.

The antibodies are the substances within the immune system that identify and kill the antigens. So, when a puppy is vaccinated, what happens is that his immune system “learns” how to identify the disease, and is prompted to fight it. Then, any time that your puppy comes into contact with those harmful antigens, the immune system will kick in and destroy them. Once the immune system becomes “trained” to identify those antigens, and forms the necessary antibodies, your puppy is immunized.

4. Doesn’t the Colostrum Provide Immunization?

Wow, you’ve done your research! You know that the colostrum is the mother’s “first milk,” the yellowish milk that is produced immediately after the litter is delivered. And yes, the puppies will receive some protection in the form of antibodies if they consume the colostrum. More antibodies will be delivered if the mother has been properly vaccinated. The level of protection can vary – the puppy will probably be protected for anywhere from three to twelve weeks.

Now, it gets a bit complicated. If the puppy is vaccinated while the antibodies of the mother are still in his system, the mother’s antibodies will perceive the vaccine as a harmful intruder, and will attack and destroy it. This means that the puppy’s vaccination will be rendered ineffective. He can’t develop antibodies while the mother’s antibodies are still in his system. Depending on how well the puppy is nursing from the mother, he may have picked up quite a lot of antibodies from her. Or, he might have gotten few, or even none. And if the mother was never vaccinated, then she will have no antigens at all to deliver to her puppies via the colostrum.

5. So Should I Wait to Vaccinate?

No. The thing is, there’s really no reliable way of knowing if your puppy has gotten enough colostrum, or when the immunity provided by the colostrum is likely to fade. When it does, your puppy has no protection at all against disease. The antibodies from the mother could cease to be effective as early as 3weeks, or as late as 12, or at any point between. If the maternal antibodies fade at 3 weeks, and you wait until he’s 12 weeks to have him vaccinated, then he’s been vulnerable for quite a long time. You don’t want to raise him without socializing him early on, so if you decide to just keep him at home until he’s older, you’re probably going to end up adversely affecting his behavioral development.

6. Is That Why There are So Many Shots?

Yes, it is. Your veterinarian is trying to cover all the potential “windows of opportunity.” There is no way of knowing when the mother’s antibodies could begin to fade. And that means that your puppy could be unprotected at virtually any point in his early life. Your vet is delivering multiple vaccines to reduce any chance of your puppy contacting an antigen when he doesn’t have adequate protection.

The thing is, the mother’s antibodies could have faded quite early on. At three weeks, for instance. Then, if your puppy is vaccinated at four weeks, he will still develop his own antibodies, and he might not even need any more vaccines – but there’s no way of knowing, so he’ll get vaccines every three or four weeks until he’s about five months old. Probably it’s more than he really needs, but you’ll know for sure that he’s protected.

It could also be that your puppy was vaccinated when he was five weeks old, and again when he was eight weeks old, and then again at 11 weeks, but the maternal antibodies kept on circulating until he reached the age of three months. In this case, the antibodies that the mother was producing would have killed off every single one of the initial vaccines, so when the maternal antibodies ultimately faded, your puppy would have had no protection at all for three weeks – until the time came around for his 14-week shot. This is actually the most dangerous time, because at this point, you’re thinking, “Well, he’s had a ton of shots, so it should be okay to take him out and about.”

The reality is that there is no way of knowing when the maternal antibodies will fade. Every case is different, and the amount of antibodies that the mother will pass on to the puppies can’t be measured. Accordingly, your vet will vaccinate your puppy repeatedly, until he or she can be absolutely sure that the mother’s antibodies won’t adversely affect the immunization.

7. Can You Tell Me More About Shelter Dogs and Why They Need More Shots?

The sad fact is that animal shelters are often a hotbed for breeding disease. And as previously stated, if puppies come from a reputable breeder, they are less likely to need multiple vaccines than if they come from a shelter. Professional breeders are typically very vigilant when it comes to immunizing their dogs, so they know that a good deal of immunity will pass from the bitch to the puppies.

Good breeders will also require that visitors to the litter remove their shoes, thereby minimizing the likelihood of passing on parvovirus, which is invariably fatal in puppies, and usually fatal in adult dogs. Parvo can be tracked into your home on your shoes – you can pick it up on the sidewalk, it can live in your home for up to six months, and if your dog is not immunized, it can be deadly. Puppies can be dropped off at an animal shelter already incubating parvo, so if you take a puppy from an animal shelter, it is absolutely essential that you have him immunized immediately.

Additionally, shelter-born puppies, or puppies that are given to a shelter right after birth, may not have received any maternal antibodies. And again, if the bitch wasn’t immunized, there are no antibodies to pass on. This is why shelter puppies have to be vaccinated over and over.

Sometimes, shelters will have puppies vaccinated at a very young age – 4-6 weeks. At four weeks, the immune system is hardly developed at all, and not likely to be able to form antibodies. It’s erring on the side of caution, though – if the puppy didn’t receive maternal antibodies, action has to be taken quickly. Good shelters will also vaccinate every 3 weeks, until the puppies reach the age of 5 months. This is just in case the puppies actually received too many antibodies from the mother, and those antibodies destroyed their natural immunity.

And, of course, there is the fact that shelter operators frequently have to use the “best guess” approach when it comes to assessing the age of a puppy. So they go with the “overlap” approach to make sure that each and every puppy has the best chance of being protected from potentially lethal diseases.

Finally, there is the unfortunate fact that shelter staffers often have to guess at the age of the puppies in their care. Shelter immunization protocols are usually designed with enough overlap to ensure that a puppy has every possible chance of receiving adequate protection from contagious disease.

8. Am I Ever Going to Be Done?

Yes. For sure it sounds like puppy vaccines are just going to go on forever and ever, but the reality is that most of the really troublesome diseases (parvovirus, distemper and canine hepatitis) are effectively dealt with between  and 4 ½ months. As to rabies, your puppy can get his first vaccine when he reaches the age of 3 months, and then it’s just a matter of a shot next year, and then every 3 years to keep him up to date. Keep in mind, too, that if your dog has received even two rabies vaccines, he will most likely be protected for life. If you plan to travel with your dog, though, most states will require vaccines every three years.

9. Can I Take My Puppy to Obedience School?

You can, assuming that the school requires vaccination records from every puppy or dog that they enroll. And if you see a puppy with any signs that it might be ill, get your puppy out of there immediately.

10. My Friend Told Me About Something Called a Titer Test. What Is That?

This is a way of finding out if your puppy is not responsive to vaccines. The vast majority are. However, a few will be “non-responders” – in other words, not able to develop antibodies even when vaccinated. They will be vulnerable to disease no matter how many times you have them vaccinated, and they are going to always have to be kept away from any environment where there could be non-vaccinated dogs.

The titer test is a way of finding out whether your puppy’s vaccinations have been effective – that they have actually taught his immune system how to create antibodies. A couple of weeks after the final vaccinations (usually when your puppy is about 5 months old), your vet will take a blood sample, which will be sent to a lab, and then tested to see if antibodies are present. If they are, it’s all good – your puppy has been properly immunized.

Now, if the blood test comes back negative for antibodies, your vet will recommend that you have your puppy vaccinated once more, using a different type of vaccine than what was used during the first series. Then in two weeks’ time, the test will be repeated again. If it still comes up negative, then you are in the unfortunate minority of people who have puppies that will be vulnerable to any type of disease that they may come into contact with.

You probably don’t need a titer test, but if you’re worried about your puppy’s potential immunity, or lack thereof, it’s worth considering. Not all veterinary clinics will offer this test, and some that do expect a ridiculous amount of money to have it done. More progressive clinics, though, offer the test at low cost and will deliver results within about 3 minutes.

You can also have a titer test done by having your vet take a blood sample, and sending it to Dr. Ronald D. Schultz Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The test costs a mere $25, but of course you will have to pay your vet to extract and ship the blood sample.

11. Is There Anything Else I Should Know?

Yes. Until your puppy gets his final shots (usually by 18 weeks of age), he is not fully immunized. So you shouldn’t be taking him to the dog park, or anywhere else that he’s likely to come into contact with other dogs whose immunization may be in question. Of course you want him to be properly socialized, though, so by all means, take him to the homes of friends and family. If they have dogs, make sure that their dogs have been immunized. Make sure too, that if you think someone has been in places where dogs congregate, they leave their shoes at the door before coming into your home – there are few things more heartbreaking than having to put a puppy to sleep because someone tracked in parvo.

The Final Word

If you have any doubts at all that you absolutely must have your puppy vaccinated, I hope that the preceding FAQs have laid your doubts to rest. No one in their right mind is ever going to deny their puppy the benefits of vaccination. Honestly, I wish that vaccination could be made mandatory for anyone who wants to own a dog. To even consider allowing a dog to go through life without the protection that he needs to remain free of horrible, debilitating, and even fatal diseases is simply unconscionable. So if you love your dog, please, please, begin vaccinating at a very early age, and keep it up throughout your dog’s life.

All your dog wants is to love you and be your companion for however many years the Creator allows him. Don’t betray that trust. Vaccinate.