Pet vaccines – everything you want to know

Ever wondered what pet vaccinations are all about? Vaccines are injections or intranasal medication given to your pet to help prevent him from contracting certain diseases. Vaccinations are not only essential for your pet, but also for the community of animals and people who come into contact with your animal or his environment.

How do vaccines work?

The most common vaccines contain an altered version of the original disease-causing organism, which is injected into your pet’s body. This organism in the vaccines has been changed so dramatically that it is unable to harm your pet in the way the original disease would have. Your animal, in return, responds by creating antibodies, the ‘soldiers’ of the body, against this disease.

Your pet’s vaccinations can be divided into core vaccines, the ones which are absolutely necessary, and non-core vaccines, those that are only necessary depending on the area or the conditions your animal lives in.

Vaccination schedule

The South African Veterinary Association has published the following dog and cat vaccination guidelines for South Africa. (This is the current recommended vaccination schedule. Always check with your vet for the latest updates, or go to

Basic dog vaccination schedule:

  • 6 weeks – first core five-in-one vaccine.
  • 9 weeks – second core five-in-one vaccine.
  • 12 weeks – third core five-in-one vaccine and first rabies vaccine.
  • Between 4 and 12 months – second rabies vaccine.
  • One year – core five-in-one and rabies vaccine booster.
  • It is essential to re-vaccinate your dog at least every three years, but most veterinarians will recommend doing it yearly.

Basic cat vaccination schedule:

  • 6 weeks – first core three-in-one vaccine.
  • 9 weeks – second core three-in-one vaccine.
  • 12 weeks – third core three-in-one vaccine and first rabies vaccine.
  • Between 4 and 12 months – second rabies vaccine.
  • One year – core three-in-one and rabies vaccine booster.
  • It is essential to re-vaccinate your cat every year thereafter.

Common diseases of unvaccinated animals

Two of the most dreaded diseases that veterinarians encounter on a daily basis are canine parvo and canine distemper. Both diseases can be prevented by the core vaccinations.

Canine parvovirus mostly affects young, unvaccinated puppies and leads to vomiting, diarrhoea, poor appetite, weakness and death in almost all untreated cases. It has been found that unvaccinated animals are almost 13 times more likely to contract parvo than vaccinated animals.

Dogs infected with canine distemper will present with a discharge from the eyes and nose, coughing, vomiting, diarrhoea, as well as neurological signs, like twitching, in severe cases.

Rabies is a fatal, but preventable virus that can be transmitted from animals to humans. Domestic dogs are the most common hosts of the virus, with more than 99% of human deaths (resulting from rabies) having been caused by dog bites. It is a requirement in South Africa to vaccinate your pet against rabies, considering that South Africa has several hundred cases of animal rabies each year and a few cases of human rabies.

Why some people prefer not to vaccinate

Some people, unfortunately, refrain from having their pets vaccinated due to the undeniable side effects it may have on their pets. Side effects, although extremely rare, can include a mild swelling at the injection site, allergic reactions, which include facial swelling or hives, lethargy or even loss of appetite. Some people also claim that vaccinations can lead to autoimmune diseases, epilepsy and behavioural problems, although these claims lack sufficient scientific evidence.

By no means does the potential for any of these side effects justify an unvaccinated dog or cat in South Africa, as the potential for contracting and spreading a disease to humans and other animals is much higher than the possible risk of a vaccine-related side effect. Anyone who has ever seen a puppy with parvo or distemper will agree that it is not worth the risk to keep your pet unvaccinated.

Mistaken belief

Some of the most common misconceptions I encounter every day include:

  • “Pets are considered fully vaccinated with only one vaccination from the breeder.”
  • “Only young puppies get parvo.” Although the risk is much higher for young puppies to get parvo, I have diagnosed dogs over the age of two years who contracted the virus.
  • “Rabies is only a risk in rural areas,” when, in reality, there has recently been cases recorded in suburban areas.
  • “Vaccinations can be used to treat sick animals.” Vaccinations can only help to prevent certain diseases and can in no way cure them.
  • “Rather vaccinate your own animals, as veterinary fees are too expensive.” All vaccinations should only be given after a full clinical examination to ensure the animal is healthy and capable of producing an immune response. Veterinarians also take special precautions, ensuring all vaccinations are kept at the correct temperature from the time it is manufactured until it is injected into your animal.

Don’t think twice about asking your vet if your dog or cat’s vaccinations are up to date, and if not, what can be done to ensure your beloved pet’s safety.


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