The Value of Vaccines


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Veterinarians can help uneasy clients follow the science of vaccines.

Personalized medicine is not just for people. Pet owners, too, are increasingly looking for reassurance that their veterinarian’s recommendations are based on their pet’s individual needs, says Jessica Vogelsang, DVM, AAHA chief medical officer. Pets have a better chance of receiving the care they need when the entire veterinary team presents a clear and consistent message regarding optimal protocols for each animal’s lifestyle and health needs.

Staying current with AAHA guidelines and asking clients the right questions to determine their pets’ lifestyles are essential for veterinarians to create the best vaccination plan for patients. Depending on each pet’s activity and level of exposure, noncore vaccinations can be equally crucial as core vaccinations for an individual pet’s health, said Dr. Vogelsang. “Veterinarians may change a non-core recommendation to core if a pet has been determined to be at risk for a disease that a non-core vaccination protects against. Once the veterinary team understands this, it can adopt strategies to communicate this message to pet owners.” In the case of the noncore vaccine – leptospirosis – the 2023 guidelines have been updated to recommend it for all dogs, she added. “While historically large-breed, rural dogs have been considered at the highest risk of leptospirosis. This is no longer the case. Any dog can be infected, including small-breed dogs and urban dogs. Risk factors include spending any time outdoors, exposure to rodents, and spending time in kennels and/or dog daycares.”

Feline vaccination guidelines (, which were updated in 2020, include risk-benefit assessments for lifestyle factors that determine the risk of exposure to infectious diseases, she continued. “Client communication is important in developing an accurate picture of a cat’s lifestyle,” she said. “For example, a cat may be described as indoor only, yet it may be exposed to other cats or periodically to the outdoors.

“It’s important to note that rabies is a required vaccination for cats and, where permitted by local laws and regulations, the AAHA Feline Vaccination Guidelines recommend a three-year vaccination interval using a three-year labeled vaccine,” said Dr. Vogelsang. “And the feline leukemia vaccine is considered core for kittens and young adult cats less than one year of age due to their increased susceptibility. The guidelines also include an update on feline injection-site sarcomas (injections should be made in lower limbs), although the incidence estimates remain low in the United States.”

AAHA now offers an online tool to help veterinarians determine risk factors for their canine ( and feline ( patients.

Educating pet owners

Public awareness of vaccines and vaccine technologies has become heightened, especially after the COVID-19 epidemic, said Tina Bearden, DVM, Senior Associate Director of Veterinary Technical Marketing for vaccines at Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. In some cases, pet owners may express concerns about vaccinating their pets, either because they have read about a rare adverse reaction in an animal or saw a story on social media, she says. It’s essential that veterinarians take their concerns seriously and take the time to educate pet owners on vaccine safety and efficacy.

“Vaccines are powerful biological products and should not be taken for granted,” she said. “While adverse events can happen in rare cases unless animals have a medical need not to be vaccinated – for instance, they are pregnant or have a compromised immune system or another health issue – vaccines generally are recommended and considered safe in helping protect them from a disease that could pose an even greater threat.”

Disease outbreaks are widespread among high-risk pets, such as those living at an animal shelter where exposure to disease is heightened, Dr. Bearden said. “This tells us that herd immunity is effective for the low-risk, vaccinated pet population but that certain diseases continue to threaten the general animal population.”

According to the 2022 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines, “vaccines are arguably the greatest invention of the 19th century. Vaccines have reduced morbidity and mortality more than any other medical intervention in both human and veterinary medicine.”1

All commercially available vaccines are tested thoroughly for safety, potency, and efficacy prior to their release, and in most cases, the benefits of vaccines outweigh any risks, noted Dr. Bearden. In one study that looked at adverse events in dogs following vaccination over a 2-year period, the adverse event incidence was extremely low – 38.2/10,000 dogs vaccinated.3 “The diseases these vaccines help protect against, such as Canine Parvovirus and Canine Distemper, can cause death, even with early diagnosis and aggressive treatment,” she said.

For some pet owners, the cost of vaccines in addition to other expenses involved in pet care, may present a barrier. While the annual cost to vaccinate a pet is affordable for most pet owners, additional expenses such as food, grooming, boarding, and other medications can add up. “Veterinarians can help pet owners understand the medical value of a vaccine and the diseases they help prevent, which can hopefully motivate an owner to consider vaccination,” Dr. Bearden said. “It’s important for pet owners also to know that rabies vaccines are mandated by local law.”

Pet owners should be aware that the cost of vaccination is far less than potential costs associated with hospitalization or treatment from illness that could be prevented through vaccination, she continued. “Veterinarians can help educate pet owners that pet vaccination guidelines are created based on years of research and supporting data. Veterinarians use these guidelines to tailor their recommendations for their practice and patients, and the recommendation to vaccinate a pet is determined ultimately by the veterinarian.”

It’s critical that veterinarians address client hesitancy when it comes to vaccinating their pets. “When owners are genuinely afraid of vaccines, it’s important to actively listen to their concerns, understand their reasons and provide data in a clear and concise manner,” said Dr. Bearden. “Commercially available pet vaccines are safe and effective, and serious side effects are uncommon. The most common adverse events are considered normal immune responses to vaccines and include fever and lethargy. In extreme cases, facial swelling or vomiting can also be seen and require immediate veterinary care.2,3 Setting expectations for a normal immune response versus a true adverse event is critically important.”

Distributor sales reps can provide a service to their doctors by offering vaccine reminder touchpoints, such as cards, texts, or emails that include expiry dates of their previous vaccination and recommendations for their next vaccination date, she notes. And, she added, urge them to remind their clients: commercially available pet vaccines are safe and effective, and serious side effects are uncommon.


1 Ellis J, Marziani E, Aziz C, et al. 2022 AAHA Canine Vaccination Guidelines. JAAHA. 2022;58(5):213-230. doi:10.5326/JAAHA-MS-Canine-Vaccination-Guidelines

2 Moore GE, Guptill LF, Ward MP, et al. Adverse events diagnosed within three days of vaccine administration in dogs. JAVMA. 2005;227(7):1102-1108. doi:10.2460/javma.2005.227.1102

3 Moore GE, DeSantis-Kerr AC, Guptill LF, Glickman NW, Lewis HB, Glickman LT. Adverse events after vaccine administration in cats: 2,560 cases (2002-2005). JAVMA. 2007;231(1):94-100. doi:10.2460/javma.231.1.94


Canine Vaccination Guidelines Toolkit

AAHA recommends veterinary practices adopt strategies such as the following to educate clients on the value of vaccinating their pets:

  • Ensure practice protocols align with expert recommendations on vaccine administration and frequency.
  • Train the entire veterinary team to present consistent messaging to clients.
  • Identify certain “noncore” vaccines as core for your practice, based on environment, disease prevalence, and risk.
  • Offer combination vaccines to increase compliance.


For more information, see the Canine Vaccination Guidelines Toolkit at


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