Dog Vaccinations: What, When and Why You Should Vaccinate Your Pup!

February 2, 2023 / Dog Health / By: Melanie Evans

A Pet Parent's Guide to Dog Vaccinations: What They Need, When and Why

If you are a parent the chances are good that you are more than aware of just which vaccines your child needs to have been given at what age, which ones are mandatory and which are a matter of personal choice rather than required for entrance to school.

No doubt you've also read up on these vaccines and discussed them with your child's doctor.

But here's a question for pet parents: have you done the same for your puppy or dog?

Canine Vaccinations

Like human vaccines dog vaccinations are designed to protect a dog from various illnesses. Vaccines themselves are laboratory created weak and harmless strains of the very disease they are designed to protect against.

The introduction of this miniscule amount of biological matter allows your dog's body to form a natural immune response that will then protect him should he ever come into contact with the disease 'for real'.

Take Note

Proof of up to date vaccinations is often needed to transport your dog by air, boarding in a dog kennel, work as a therapy dog or to attend an obedience class.

Which Vaccinations Do Dogs Need?

Dog vaccines can be broken down into two different groups: core and non-core vaccines.

  • Core vaccines are those that are often mandated in some areas in order for a dog to receive its local dog license and that are considered to be essential for the health of every pup, no matter what breed it is or where it lives.
  • Non-core vaccines are a little different and recommended based on geographical location. They may not be essential for every pup to get and a conversation with a vet should be initiated to determine if your dog really needs them or not. 

In dogs, vaccinations for rabies, distemper canine parvovirus and canine hepatitis are considered to be core vaccines. Noncore vaccines are given depending on the dog’s exposure risk to the diseases that the shots guard against.

These vaccinations generally include Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough), Leptospira bacteria, Parainfluenza, or canine influenza and Lyme disease.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) states:

"Dogs at a low risk of disease exposure may not need to be bolstered yearly for most diseases. Consult with your vet to determine the appropriate vaccination schedule for your dog. Remember recommendations vary upon age, breed and health status ; the potential of your pet being exposed to disease ; type of vaccine, whether the pet is used for breeding; and the geographical area where the pet lives."

You may be very unfamiliar with these diseases of course, especially if you are a new pet parent and they may sound rather scary.

Your veterinarian can fill you in in more detail - and you should have them do that before making a decision about vaccinating your dog - but here is a brief look at the preventable diseases we have just listed.

Canine Diseases Covered By Core Vaccines


Most people have heard of rabies, if only thanks to horror movies like Stephen King's Cujo. It is rare in the United States these days but not unheard of and is, unlike most diseases that affect dogs, communicable to humans.

Rabies causes acute encephalitis which is an inflammation of the nervous system. There are a few very rare occasions when, if rabies is diagnosed before symptoms begin to appear it can be treated, but more often than not it results in death. 

In addition, in some areas it is mandatory that a rabid dog be euthanized to prevent a public health threat. The best protection against this disease then is vaccination.

The majority of veterinarians support puppy and dog vaccinations against rabies.

A rabies vaccine is given at the age of 13-15 weeks of age and should be repeated in 15 months and then once in 3 years.

Canine Parvovirus

Canine Parvovirus (CPV) , often simply referred to as parvo, is a very contagious disease, usually spread by the feces of an infected pup. It is very dangerous especially for puppies whose immune systems are not properly developed yet.

If treated very promptly and aggressively in adult dogs parvo may be treatable by sadly in over 90% of cases involving puppies and younger dogs the disease is fatal. Again, the best protection is vaccination

Research has show that puppies are worst affected normally but unvaccinated dogs of all ages are susceptible to CPV. For reasons that are unknown certain breeds are at a higher risk than others.

These include Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds and American Staffordshire Terriers.

Canine Distemper

Canine distemper is often fatal or can cause serious brain damage.

It is caused by an airborne virus and is spread among dogs in much the same way the common cold is in humans, via coughs and sneezes or via shared toys or even shared sleeping spaces.  

Most experts agree that there is a need for canine distemper vaccination since this disease is more prevalent in most countries.

Canine Hepatitis

A disease spread via infected urine and feces canine hepatitis can quickly lead to severe liver damage and even to death.

Diseases Covered By Non-core Vaccines

Diseases Covered By Noncore Vaccines

As we mentioned, non-core vaccines for dogs are not mandated by state or town regulations and are more of a 'personal decision' for pet parents when it comes to deciding whether or not their pup should be vaccinated against them.

Bordetella bronchiseptica (Kennel cough)

This disease gets its common name - kennel cough - thanks to the fact it is often found in shelters and large breeding facilities where a number of dogs live together in close proximity to one another.

As it is an airborne disease and highly contagious it's hard for uninfected dogs to avoid coming into contact with in these circumstances.

Kennel cough is a cough, but a rather severe one that is the result of an infection of the trachea. It can be treated successfully with antibiotics when caught early enough but left untreated can lead to pneumonia or death. 

Canine Influenza

As you might have guessed, canine influenza is very similar to the influenza that affects humans. 

Like humans, most dogs recover on their own and a canine influenza vaccination will not prevent the disease, merely lessen its symptoms should the pup become infected.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is an illness that is transmitted by black legged ticks and is most common in the North Eastern states of the United States where larger populations of these ticks are found. 

A bite from an infected tick transfers a bacteria known as Borrelia burgdorferi to its host (either canine or human).

Not every pup that is bitten by an infected tick will ever develop symptoms are suffer ill health as a result of the bite. Others may display new lameness and/or lethargy, have enlarged lymph nodes or become inactive and withdrawn.

Most dogs however do recover well after an intensive course of antibiotics although young puppies and senior dogs may be more seriously infected.

The fact that Lyme disease is so localized for the most part means that only a small number of dogs are really good candidates for a vaccination against it.

However, for those living in areas known to be 'at risk areas' who do spend a great deal of time outdoors it may be well worth considering.

Puppy Vaccination Schedule (6 months - adult)

The following vaccination schedule is recommended by the American Hospital Association. 


Age for Boosters


1 year,  then every 3 years


1 year, then every 3 years


1 year, then every 3 years


1 year, then every 3 years

Canine adenovirus-2

1 year, then every 3 years


1 year, then every 3 years


1 year, then as needed

Lyme disease*

1 year, then prior to tick season

Rabies +

1 year, then every 3 years

* Optional vaccines, depending on location and risk.

+ Required by law. Some states still require annual boosters.

Still Hesitant About Getting Your Dog Vaccinated?

Pet parents worry about dog vaccinations.

They do not want to put their dogs under any undue stress or into any discomfort (or at any risk) if they do not have to.

Like human vaccinations however dog vaccinations are extensively tested and provided they are administered by a vet perfectly safe for most dogs.

Certain core dog vaccinations - primarily rabies because it is a threat to human public health - are mandated by most states.

States may also mandate just when - in terms of age - a pup should be vaccinated against the disease and so in order to remain in compliance with local laws you should always make sure that you know when that is.

Because it is so very important that dogs be vaccinated against rabies most areas - understanding that vet visits and dog vaccinations can be a budgetary burden for some pet parents do offer free to very low cost rabies vaccination clinics on a regular basis so that all dogs and their humans can be protected.

In terms of other core vaccinations they are rarely mandatory.

If you dog is boarded at a kennel, or attends a pet daycare it may be required that they be vaccinated against kennel cough in order for them to do so, but in terms of the decision to opt for dog vaccinations against other diseases the ultimate choice lies with the pet parent.

There are some things to keep in mind when making these decisions.

The Age of Your Dog

Very few vets would ever advise vaccinating a puppy that is under the age of 16 weeks old and that is because puppies have immunity from their mother early in life.

Though some vets argue that puppies should receive their first vaccinations between six and eight weeks old with the final vaccines given at 16 weeks old.

Take Note

Avoid taking your growing puppy to what dog experts consider high-risk areas until he/she has received their complete set of vaccinations. These include: doggy-day care centers, boarding kennels, pet stores and dog parks.

Even then though it may be a little early for some pups and waiting until the age of six months may be preferable.

Vaccinations can also be a concern for senior dogs.

Their very nature puts a short strain on the immune system - as the essential antibodies develop - and for older dogs whose immune systems are weakening as a result of age (which is natural and hard to prevent completely).

In these cases it is normal that a vet may recommend giving only essential core vaccines like the rabies shot to avoid unnecessary strain on the aging pup's immune system.

The Size of Your Dog

In some cases a dog may not be of a sufficient weight to safely handle the administration of dog vaccines.

A good example are dogs who are considered the runts of their litter and already require extra care in order to help them grow and thrive as much as possible. 

It's for this reason that many vets are against the idea of putting age recommendations on shots for very young puppies as what a strong three month old puppy may be able to handle a smaller, still trying to catch up puppy likely will not.

Spacing of the Vaccinations

Giving a dog too many vaccinations at one time can inevitably increase the risk of side effects, especially if they are getting shots for the first time.

It's for this reason that many vets prefer to 'space out' the timing of core and noncore vaccinations to better try to ensure that they are administered safely.

Your Dog's General Health

Vaccines should never be administered to a dog that is already in ill health unless absolutely necessary.


Like humans some dogs do have allergic reactions to certain shots.

This is usually only discovered after an initial vaccination of course but going forward administering second or booster shots to a dog that has experienced a previous allergic reaction to it is never a good idea.

Can a Pregnant Dog Get Vaccinated?

Yes, a pregnant dog can receive vaccinations against viral diseases two to three weeks to pregnancy activity.

This is suggested in order to provide maternal antibodies to the unborn pup.

Do Dogs Really Need Vaccinations?

When it comes to noncore dog vaccinations the simple fact is that some pups may not need them at all.

The Borrelia burgdorferi, Lyme disease vaccination for example is only really needed if a pup lives in the areas where Lyme ticks are common, which is, as we previously mentioned the Northeastern states of the US. 

A dog living in the South therefore has no need to vaccinate against the disease as it is extremely unlikely that they will ever encounter it.

The same can be said for canine influenza. The vaccine does not prevent the disease, merely makes it less problematic, which is also the case for the flu vaccines given to humans.

The best way to determine if you should give your pup dog vaccinations - and if so which ones - is to have a serious conversation with your vet about them after your pup's general health has been accessed.

Most vets are rightly keen that where they are appropriate these vaccines should be given as they can quite literally save lives. However, it is the rare vet who will insist that a dog be vaccinated if doing so would be detrimental to their health in general.

As is the case with human vaccines the concept of dog vaccination is controversial. There are people who feel that they are not necessary and that the science behind some of the dog vaccinations is flawed or outdated.

Some pet parents prefer to titer test pups who have been previously vaccinated against certain diseases before getting booster shots.

Titer tests are a way to determine how many natural antibodies a pup already has to fight a specific disease and if a certain level are present a booster may not be necessary.

In the end, with the exception of the rabies vaccine, the decision whether or not to vaccinate your dog is yours.

Be a wise dog owner, consult with your veterinarian and make use of accredited research before making any final decisions for your pet.


Melanie Evans

Melanie Evans is a professional freelance writer based in Scranton, PA, who, enjoys sharing her lifelong knowledge about dogs. When not working, Melanie enjoys playing a wide variety of sports, traveling and hanging out with her energetic boxer dog Bruce.

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