A shot now staves off sickness

Posted: Sunday, November 14, 2004


  Animals need to start receiving vaccines when they are young to protect against several illnesses when they are older. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Animals need to start receiving vaccines when they are young to protect against several illnesses when they are older.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Vaccinations are a pet owner's best line of defense against contagious diseases that potentially can be fatal to their furry friends.

This isn't news to most pet owners who annually bring their animals to a veterinarian for boosters. However, many people are unaware of exactly what their pets receive and why.

Vaccines contain viruses or bacteria that have been modified so they will not cause disease. These come in two types, killed viruses or bacteria and modified live viruses or bacteria.

They both stimulate a pet's immune system to produce antibodies against the disease, without causing the disease itself.

This is done so that later, if the pet becomes exposed to the infectious disease, the antibodies will attack and destroy the disease.

Initially, vaccines are given to puppies and kittens to gradually phase in immunity as the passive-immune antibodies they have been receiving from their mother's milk begins to wear off. Also, if given before weaning, the maternal antibodies may prevent a vaccine from being totally effective.

Many veterinarians suggest beginning the vaccination series at 6 to 8 weeks of age, then repeating the vaccines every three to four weeks after that until roughly 16 weeks of age.

Pets are then given boosters annually to continue to protect them, since it is believed that the vaccines in their system gradually decline overtime. However, the specific duration of immunity from each vaccine is debated by veterinary professionals.

There are many vaccines available for dogs, and although not all are absolutely necessary, some vaccines should not be skipped for any reason.

Rabies is probably the disease most people are familiar with when it comes to their pets. Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the central nervous system.

It can be contracted by all warm-blooded mammals, including humans, and, like many diseases that can be passed to pets, it is frequently found in wildlife such as foxes, coyotes and wolves.

Signs of the disease include changes in the animal's behavior, such as acting abnormally tame or aggressive. Other signs include excessive salivation, problems swallowing, difficulty moving and partial paralysis of body parts.

Rabies is transmitted by saliva, which is usually transferred by a bite from an infected animal. Once infected, the disease often is fatal.

Canine distemper is another serious and highly contagious viral disease. It affects primarily young, unvaccinated dogs.

Signs may include discharge often greenish or yellowish from the eyes or nose, coughing and labored breathing, fever, loss of appetite with vomiting and diarrhea, body spasms and seizures.

Prevention of distemper is important because, in addition to frequently being fatal, dogs that survive can have permanent damage to their nervous system and sensory organs.

Canine parvovirus is a serious disease that can have a fairly high mortality rate in puppies despite early or aggressive therapy.

It affects primarily young dogs from 6 weeks to 6 months old. The breeds at highest risk include German shepherds, pit bulls, rottweilers, Doberman pinschers and Labrador retrievers.

Parvovirus attacks the gastrointestinal tract and signs of the disease include loss of appetite, vomiting and diarrhea that is bloody and has a foul odor. Others signs include fever and lethargy.

Transmission of the disease occurs through contact with infected dogs or their infected stool. Parvovirus is hardy and able to withstand extreme temperature changes and even exposure to most disinfectants.

Treatment is frequently intensive and expensive and will not always save he pet.

Canine parainfluenza is a viral disease that is a contributor to the problem of tracheobronchitis in dogs.

The common name for tracheobronchitis is "kennel cough" and it must be noted that the parainfluenza virus is not the only one that can cause the disorder. A separate Bordetella vaccination can be given against the bacterial cause of kennel cough.

Parainfluenza and all forms of kennel cough are highly contagious. Signs include a deep, dry, hacking cough. Some dogs also may develop a slight fever, nasal discharge and loss of appetite.

It generally takes seven to 10 days for the symptoms to run their course, but antibiotics are necessary in cases with severe symptoms, or those that last more than 10 days.

This disease is spread through sneezing, coughing and contact with infected nasal secretions. Infected animals should be isolated from other dogs immediately and kept in a warm, humid environment (such as a laundry room) until recovered.

There are several other diseases for which vaccinations are available, such as leptospirosis, corona virus, hepatitis, lyme disease and giardia. However, not all of these diseases occur with enough frequency in Alaska to annually warrant their vaccine administration.

For kittens and cats, the vaccine regime is similar to that of dogs, but with the exception of rabies, the vaccines are not the same.

Feline distemper, like the canine vaccine, often is a combination shot that prevents respiratory diseases like feline rhinotracheitus, feline calicivirus and feline panleukopenia.

Rhinotracheitus and calicivirus are the two main causes of upper respiratory infections in cats, and although these diseases can affect cats of any age, kittens are at a greater risk.

Signs of the diseases include sneezing, discharge from the nose and eyes and swollen eyes. Another telltale sign is the forearms of infected cat may be wet from where they have continually rubbed their face with them.

Depression, lack of appetite and fever also may occur. Ulcers of the eye can develop and lead to severe eye infections or blindness.

Panleukopenia primarily occurs in unvaccinated kittens that are 3 to 5 months old, although older cats can be carriers without showing signs.

It is a hardy virus that is able to survive up to a year. Sings of the diseases include fever, loss of appetite and diarrhea.

This virus, like rhinotracheitus and calicivirus, is spread by contact with an infected animal, or through contact with food or water bowls or other areas contaminated by an infected cat.

Feline leukemia is a virus that can cause a number of health problems in cats, including cancer.

Clinical signs include diarrhea, weight loss and breathing difficulties.

The virus is spread through bodily secretions, such as saliva, blood, urine and tears. Outdoor cats that have a knack for coming home with bites and scratches may be especially prone to the disease.

Cats that test positive for leukemia should not be allowed to roam free, where they could further spread the disease.

Leukemia is not always terminal, depending on an individual cat's immune system, but many do not make it more than three years before succumbing to its affects.

Also, as with dogs, there are more vaccines available for cats, but not all may be warranted for this area.

The best thing a pet owner can do is talk with a veterinarian about the risk of viral and bacterial diseases in their area. Veterinarians can design a vaccination schedule for each pet, based on their environment, as well as the pet's age, health and reproductive status.

Joseph Robertia is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. He has worked with wildlife and domestic animals for more than 10 years as a veterinary technician, a zoo keeper, and most recently as a zoologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society. He welcomes any pet-related questions or story ideas, but please none of a veterinary nature. Ideas and questions can be sent to his attention by e-mail at news@peninsulaclarion.com.

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