How Often Do Dogs Need Rabies Shots? And Other Vaccination Info

We all want what’s best for our furry little friends, and that’s why vaccinating dogs is so important. Vaccination can protect your pet from harmful, or even fatal, illnesses like parvo, influenza, and rabies. But there’s a lot of controversy in the world of vaccination nowadays, and that applies to animal vaccines too.

While we understand that this apprehension about vaccine safety is rooted in love for our pets, we feel it is our duty to make one thing perfectly clear: vaccines are absolutely necessary. Even if you aren’t worried about your pet in particular, vaccines help prevent the spread of disease to other animals. It’s something called herd immunity, where protecting the majority helps protect more vulnerable members. Vaccinations are incredibly vital to maintaining a relatively healthy, safe world for our pets, but also for humans. Rabies is zoonotic, meaning it can be transferred from animals to humans. Plus, it is fatal and has no treatment or cure. Once your pet starts exhibiting symptoms, it is too late. In some countries or states, your pet has to be euthanized once they are shown to have contracted the rabies virus.

All of this is not meant to scare you (too much). We just want to make sure all pet owners understand the gravity of the situation. You must protect your pet from dangerous diseases with vaccinations.

How often do dogs need rabies shots
Dogs vaccination is vital to keeping both canines and humans healthy and free from disease.

What Exactly Is Rabies?

So we know that this disease is dangerous, but what is it exactly? It’s always easier to protect your pet from something when you have a solid grasp on what the problem actually is.

Rabies is a virus, which means antibiotics cannot be used to treat it, since they only work against bacteria. Viruses are microscopic parasites that rely on a host to reproduce, and once they take hold, they typically remain in the creature’s system forever, even if they don’t necessarily present symptoms. This particular illness doesn’t quite work like that though, because the creature doesn’t live long enough for the virus to go dormant. Once an animal is sick, they typically die within 10 days. But until then, they can transfer the infection to other animals (including humans) through their saliva.

Once you notice the symptoms, it’s already too late, but it’s important to know them anyway. If you notice a creature exhibiting these symptoms, make sure to keep your pet far away, and call a veterinarian or animal control.

  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Trouble barking
  • Paralysis
  • Anxiety
  • Avoidance of water
  • Changes in tone of bark
  • Excessive salivation (“foaming at the mouth”)

It’s important to note that a dog can still be infected even if they don’t have the characteristic “foaming at the mouth” symptom. This is why the vaccination of dogs is so important. You can’t always recognize when an animal is infected, so to keep your pet safe, they must get their rabies vaccination.

How Could My Dog Catch Rabies?

The most likely way your pet could catch this life-threatening illness is through a bite from an infected animal, though it’s also possible to get it from a scratch, if the animal had infected saliva on its claws. The disease is transmitted through saliva, so any time you think your dog may have been exposed to an infected animal, it’s a good idea to take them to the veterinarian right away. If they have their rabies vaccine, they should be safe, but just in case, it’s not a bad idea to get them checked out.

How Do Vaccinations Work? Are They Really Safe?

First and foremost, vaccinations are definitely safer than rabies. Even if they were dangerous or unsafe (generally they aren’t), they would still be preferable to your furry friend catching a disease that is sure to kill them. But we don’t blame you for wanting to better understand how vaccines work. Education is the antidote to fear.

dog with rabies
The rabies vaccine is vital for preventing this deadly, painful disease from spreading to both our pets and ourselves.

So vaccines sound a little scary, because they involve introducing a version of the virus to your pet’s immune system. With something as intense as a fatal illness, this can be nerve-wracking, but studies have shown that it is incredibly safe. It’s like giving the immune system a Wanted poster for the disease. If your dog comes into contact with the disease, their immune system will be able to recognize it as dangerous and hold it at bay, preventing a deadly infection.

There are a few different types of “Wanted posters” for rabies vaccines. In adjuvanted vaccines, a live (but very, very mild) version of the virus is used, and in non-adjuvanted vaccines, a completely dead version of the virus is used. Vaccines for dogs are all adjuvanted, but some feline vaccinations are non-adjuvanted because the adjuvanted vaccines have been shown to cause feline sarcoma, a type of cancer. Because this effect is not seen in canines, and the adjuvanted vaccines are perfectly safe, pups do not have non-adjuvanted rabies vaccine options.

Is the Rabies Vaccine Good for Life?

Based on how vaccines work, it sounds like it would make sense that once they’ve received their rabies vaccines, your pets will be safe for life. However, that isn’t exactly the case. Pets actually require this vaccine quite often throughout their lives.

The problem is, both viruses and animals (both pet and human) are very adaptable. To go back to the Wanted poster metaphor, it’s sort of like the virus goes back and makes minor changes to the poster, making it harder for your immune system to spot it. Or maybe the virus grows a mustache so your immune system no longer recognizes it based on the outdated Wanted poster. That’s why boosters are so important. A booster is just another vaccine to update the Wanted poster. It’s essential that your dog get multiple rabies vaccines throughout their life.

Why Is There So Much Controversy Over When Dogs Need the Rabies Vaccine?

Okay, if this illness is so deadly and scary, why is there so much confusion and argument about how often our pets need their shots? It all comes down to the limitations of science. Currently, veterinarian scientists are fairly certain that the rabies vaccination can protect a dog for three years, and there’s no need to get them annually. However, they are having a hard time proving it with scientific studies. Anecdotal data (data collected through talking to pet owners, not in a clinical experiment setting) suggests that canines are safe for three years after receiving their rabies vaccinations, but without experimental data, it’s hard to say for sure.

Plus, there is a whole other layer to the issue beyond the scientific quandary: the legal issues. Because it can be transferred to humans and we have no cure, laws surrounding rabies vaccinations are quite strict. Without hard evidence confirming that three-year vaccines are safe, some places still require one-year rabies vaccines.

Not sure what the laws are in your area? Check out this state-by-state guide by the American Veterinary Medicine Association.

What Other Vaccinations Should My Dog Get?

Rabies vaccination is vital to your pet’s health, but there are other important vaccines too. There are some vaccinations that are recommended for all dogs, but there are also “lifestyle vaccines” that may not be necessary, but are a good idea for certain pets that live particular lifestyles. Not sure which vaccines your canine needs? Just talk to your veterinarian, they can help you determine which ones are best suited for your dog’s lifestyle.

Dog drinking from pond
Pets that frequently drink from ponds or creeks should definitely get the leptospirosis vaccine from their veterinarian.

Recommended Vaccines for All Dogs:

  • Canine distemper vaccine: helps protect against distemper, a serious, sometimes-fatal illness with no known cure. Distemper can cause vomiting, seizures, and paralysis, and is typically spread through shared food and water bowls.
  • Canine hepatitis vaccine: helps prevent canine hepatitis, which is not related to the human version of the disease. Canine hepatitis causes liver dysfunction and can be deadly in severe cases.
  • Parvovirus vaccine: helps protect against parvo, a serious illness which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and deadly dehydration.
  • Leptospirosis vaccine: helps prevent Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection spread through wildlife urine in water sources and causes abdominal pain, jaundice, and even infertility. Luckily, antibiotics can help with this disease in addition to the vaccine.

Lifestyle Vaccines:

  • Lyme disease vaccine: helps protect against this tick-borne illness. Highly recommended if you live in any of these states or if you spend a lot of time in heavily wooded areas.
  • Bordetella bronchiseptica vaccine: helps prevent kennel cough. Highly recommended if your dog spends any amount of time at a kennel.
  • Canine parainfluenza vaccine: also helps protect against kennel cough.

What Is The Best Vaccination Schedule to Protect Your Pet?

Now that you know what vaccines your pet needs in addition to the rabies vaccine, you have to decide on the best vaccination schedule. In general, we recommend trusting your vet’s schedule, but if you want to double-check that your vet knows what they’re doing, here is the typical schedule.

  • 6-8 weeks of age: Canine distemper, bordetella, parainfluenza
  • 2-3 months of age: Canine distemper, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, canine influenza, rabies
  • 3-4 months of age: Canine distemper, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, canine influenza
  • 1 year of age: Rabies, leptospirosis, Lyme disease, canine influenza, bordetella

After the first year, your pet will require annual vaccine boosters for several diseases. In some states, this may include the rabies vaccine, but more common annual boosters include the vaccine for Lyme disease, leptospirosis, canine influenza, and bordetella. If your dog frequently stays in kennels, your vet may recommend 6-month vaccine boosters for bordetella.

In other states, the rabies vaccine is only required every three years, along with other three-year boosters, like canine distemper. Keep your pets vaccinated according to a regular schedule, and you will be doing them a huge service by keeping them safe.

Final Thoughts on Vaccination, Dog Safety, and Pet Owner Responsibility

Hopefully you feel more comfortable with the idea of vaccines to protect your pet, especially from the deadly and dangerous rabies virus. If you’re still feeling uncertain, we highly recommend waiting to obtain a pet until you feel comfortable with vaccination. Vaccines are vital for keeping our pets (and ourselves) safe.

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