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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Owners Giving Vaccines

Controversial subject?  We'll see.

Most vets don't recognize vaccines given by breeders or owners and most boarding facilities I know of also will only accept vet-given immunizations.  This can cause some disgruntled people as they have to get vaccines done again through a vet if they want to board or groom their pet.  Some vets may also not allow unvaccinated pets to stay in the hospital for simple things like spays and neuters without proper vaccinations.  I've known a lot of owners and breeders who have gotten upset in circumstances like this and I've had to try and explain it to them.  There really are very valid reasons, and it's not about the vets trying to squeeze more money out of people.

I will be the first to admit that giving a vaccine isn't rocket science and I can train someone to give injections just as well as I can.  It's also common for most people with horses, cows, goats, and other livestock to give their own vaccinations rather than going through a vet.  In most states of the US the rabies vaccine must by law be given by a vet, but other vaccines are not legally mandated.  So yes, legally an owner can give their own vaccines (other than rabies) without breaking the law.  You can easily purchase distemper and parvo vaccines at feed stores or online, so they are available to clients.

With this in mind, what is the problem with owners giving vaccines?  Why bring it up now?

Yesterday I had an 11 month old Yorkshire terrier come in and within an hour die from parvo virus infection.  A few days prior to that a littermate died at home from parvo.  We managed to treat and save one of the dogs in the litter.  This is a good bit older than most dogs are when they succumb to parvo.  And the owner was the one giving the vaccines.  In fact, the only adult dogs I've seen who have come down with parvo had their vaccines given by the owner.

If vaccines are so available and so easy to give, why are breeder- and owner-given vaccines not effective?  Usually it comes down to inappropriate administration.  Vaccines must be started at a certain age and boostered at proper intervals in order to stimulate long-term immunity.  Vaccines must also be mixed properly and stored at the proper temperature in order to be effective.  Mix them wrong, store them for too long at too high of a temperature, or otherwise mishandle them and the vaccine will not work.  Also, not all vaccines are equally effective, and owners usually don't have the information available to make those decisions between manufacturers.

I routinely see breeders starting vaccines at four or five weeks old, when the minimum age should be six weeks (this is due to proper immunology).  I have seen pet stores giving vaccines weekly, when a duration shorter than two weeks doesn't do anything to booster immunity.  I've had clients who give one vaccine and think the pet is protected.  One time I had a client bring in the bottles of the vaccine given by the breeder, where the breeder had used the diluent liquid and the dry powder from two different company's vaccines.  Anyone who is in the veterinary field knows exactly what I'm talking about.  For anyone who hasn't worked in veterinary medicine, please believe me that these sorts of things happen much more commonly than you realize.

When we see a vaccine record from a breeder or an owner, we honestly have little to no idea if the vaccines were administered and handled properly.  Many of them might be, and I've known breeders who give the same vaccines I use and do so in a very medically appropriate way.  But based on some paper or labels we have no idea whether or not that is the case.  It is in the best interest of the pet and ensures the best health for a veterinarian to be the one to give the vaccines.  Can vets mess things up?  Sure, we're only human and as prone to failings and lies as much as the next person.  But you are much less likely to have improper vaccination through a vet than through an owner.  Vets simply have more knowledge and training than the huge majority of pet owners and breeders, as well as have their licenses and careers on the line when it comes to medicine and record-keeping.

I know that money is tight for people, and many give vaccines to help their budget.  But you are potentially leaving your pet open to infection, as well as preventing them from getting full exams to look for other issues.  It's simply in your pet's best interests to let a veterinary medical professional be the one to do vaccinations.


  1. Excellent post. And what about when they give the shot at home and leave for work and the dog has a reaction? Also I hate when vet clinics will actually sell people vaccines to give at home. You can't go to your pediatrician and buy vax for your kids. I wonder if people ever try that?

  2. Another problem with owners/breeders administering vaccines is that they do so without any type of physical exam. After working in clinics for over 7 years I know that a seeminly healthy dog can, in fact, be harbouring an infection which can be exacerbated by the immune stimulating effects of vaccines. The case that sticks out in my mind are two little Yorkies that came in for their annual checkup and vaccines. On the surface they appeared healthy - lots of energy, eating and drinking well...etc. But during the exam we noted dehydration and a mild fever - something the owner was unable to pick up on. We decided to hold off on the vaccines and instead ran some blood work and it turned out both dogs were positive for Leptospirosis. Had the vaccines just been given without a proper exam the consequences could have been severe

  3. I work at an animal shelter and one of the "perks" is that we are able to purchase distemper & (intranasal) bordatella vaccinations at cost. Most of the employees tend to take advantage of this because it is a significant savings. I have been giving shots for years (one of my dogs is Addisonian) and have no doubt that I am at least as experienced as the technicians at my vet clinic.

    That said, the only vaccination I purchase through the shelter is bordatella. The actual efficacy of the vaccine is questionable at best anyhow, and the only reason I give it at all is because we come into contact with a great number of unknown dogs at agility trials. My vet knows & trusts me -- I bring him the labels and he puts them in my dogs' files.

    The reason I don't do my own distemper vaccination is because I do feel that having a relationship with my vet is important -- It is good for him to put his hands on my dogs in case there is something I have missed. Also, my dogs don't all get the standard 5-way vaccine we do at the shelter. My small dog gets everything separated and I separate out Lepto with the other two.

    One could argue about the frequency of vaccinations recommended by veterinarians -- If my veterinarian recommended yearly boosters, for example, I'd be far more inclined to take it upon myself to vaccinate with an approved three-year vaccine. And truthfully, if an animal was properly vaccinated as a youngster, it likely doesn't matter if they are poorly vaccinated at home after that because they likely retain immunity anyhow.

    But regardless, my dogs have a yearly wellness visit at minimum with our veterinarian and I recommend the same to everyone else. I find the better they know my animals, the faster we tend to figure out what is wrong.

  4. Karissa makes a good point. It's not rocket science to be able to give a vaccine. Although certainly there are people that screw it up, plenty of people can be trained to give them correctly, just like insulin, etc.

    I guess the big issue I have is that most people who want to vaccinate at home are doing so to save money and a trip to the vet, thus skipping the exam and other routine care. People who vaccinate responsibly at home but still come in for exams are definitely the exception. I just wrote a post loosely based on this issue today.

  5. Wouldn't it be in the best interest of the pet for the Veterinarian to run a titre on breeder/owner vaccinated pets instead of risking over-vaccination? As a retired Vet Tech and current hobby breeder of show dogs I have had the experience of seeing the damage over-vaccination causes. It is a complex issue but to dismiss owner vaccination and re-vaccinate arbitrarily seems equally if not more risky to the pet. There ought to be a better way and I wish Vets would look at each case individually before jumping the gun on vaccine policy.

  6. Jan, I've discussed titers in other blog posts, and they're not reliable. The values vary from lab to lab and there is no consensus among immunologists as to what constitutes a protective titer level. So most vets and immunologists don't recommend titers because of these uncertanties. Vaccines overall are very safe in the huge majority of patients. If an owner gives a vaccine we don't know if it was actually given properly or even injected properly, as I mentioned in this post. At my clinic we do look at each patient's risk and don't give every vaccine to every pet.


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