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Puppy Vaccine Schedule: When, Why, and How to Vaccinate Your Puppy

Making sure your growing puppy gets all their core vaccinations, noncore vaccines, and booster shots is critical to helping your pup grow healthy and strong.

A French Bulldog in a bib sits on an examination table at the vet.

Making sure your growing puppy gets all their core vaccinations, noncore vaccines, and booster shots is critical to helping your pup grow healthy and strong.

By: Dr. Juli, DVM @itsdrjuli

Advances in veterinary medicine, a deeper understanding of canine nutrition, and improved access to high-quality information have helped us be better pet parents and help our pups live longer, healthier lives. Pet vaccination programs are yet another way veterinarians and dog owners have been able to help decrease the chances of puppies contracting dangerous infectious diseases, which may be deadly in some cases.

Just like having a baby, bringing home a new puppy is a time full of joy and excitement - and anxiety about how best to care for our newest family members. And just like having a family doctor to walk you through the first steps of parenthood, your dog’s veterinarian can help you support your new puppy through the early stages of their life.

When you introduce your new pet to their veterinarian, the doctor will recommend a series of vaccinations to ensure your pup's immune system can fight common viral diseases and bacterial infections. If it seems like you are constantly at the vet during your puppy's first year, that just means you're being a responsible dog parent! Your veterinarian will serve as your guide and educator to set your puppy up for success and health as they grow into adulthood. In this article, we’ll give you an overview of what to expect.

A French Bulldog in a bib sits on an examination table at the vet.

Core Vaccinations: Don’t Skip These

The American Animal Hospital Association's (AAHA) Canine Vaccine Task Force is a group of veterinary experts who meet regularly to recommend vaccination protocols based on evidence, practical clinical experience, and expert opinion. These individuals compile specific recommendations for core and non-core vaccinations.

Because maternal immunity wanes over the first few weeks of a puppy's life, vaccinations are paramount to protect our dogs from common infections. Vaccinations stimulate your puppy's immune system to fight off specific bacteria, viruses, or other infectious organisms. Like human vaccinations, dog vaccines are not always 100% effective in preventing illness, but symptom severity will be drastically reduced. Vaccines cannot prevent a specific microorganism from entering your pup's body; thus, in some cases, vaccinated dogs can still spread diseases even though they are not sick. 

Your puppy's veterinarian will recommend an individual vaccination schedule based on your pup's age, breed, lifestyle, and overall health. Core vaccinations are commonly recommended and, in some cases, required by law for all dogs. Core vaccines protect against common canine infectious agents and are often given in a combination injection called DHPP or DA2PP, which includes precautions against:

  • Canine distemper virus (CDV). This highly contagious and potentially deadly virus can affect the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), respiratory system (lungs), and nervous system. Distemper is spread through body fluids, sharing of food bowls, or from mother to puppy. Common signs include eye discharge, fever, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, seizures, and hardening of the paw pads. Dogs who do survive an infection will likely suffer from life-long neurologic problems.
  • Infectious canine hepatitis (ICH). Although hepatitis refers to liver inflammation, multiple organ systems are affected by ICH, including the eyes, lungs, kidneys, GI, and nervous systems. ICH is spread by exposure to infected body fluids, including urine, nasal and eye discharge. Contact with infected wildlife can also put a dog at risk for ICH. Clinical signs are variable, including fever, nasal discharge, and cloudiness of the eyes. 
  •  Canine parvovirus (CPV). This highly contagious and potentially deadly virus (also known simply as “parvo”) is spread through contaminated objects or by ingesting infected feces. CPV travels through your dog's bloodstream and invades their intestinal lining. It's environmentally stable but can be killed on surfaces with a 1:20 bleach solution. Signs may include vomiting, fever, lethargy, and diarrhea, which may contain blood. 
  • Parainfluenza virus (CPIV). Although CPIV is not considered a core vaccination, it's included in most dog core combination vaccines. CPIV is highly contagious and one of the infectious agents that can cause canine infectious respiratory disease complex (CRDC) or kennel cough. Infection is spread through contact with infected fluids or objects. Signs include coughing, fever, or nasal discharge.
  • Rabies. This fatal viral infection is deadly to humans and dogs, so vaccination is required by law. Each state has its own specific regulations on rabies vaccinations. Rabies infects the nervous system and is spread by the saliva of an infected animal, often through a bite or open wound. Depending on the viral phase, signs are variable, including behavioral changes, foaming at the mouth, difficulty breathing, and seizures.

Non-Core Vaccines: When Does Your Dog Need Them?

Non-core vaccinations are recommended based on your dog's risk factors, including geographic location, exposure risk, and lifestyle. Your veterinarian will discuss your dog's risk factors and recommend an appropriate vaccination series to protect your pup. The AAHA vaccine lifestyle tracker can help pet parents determine which non-core vaccines can benefit their pet, which may include:

  • Bordetella (kennel cough). Bordetella bronchiseptica is highly contagious and a common culprit of kennel cough or CRDC. Kennel cough can be easily spread from sniffing an infected dog or sharing infected dishes or toys. Signs include a goose-honk-type harsh cough, eye or nose discharge, lethargy, and lethargy. Dogs who frequent the groomer, dog parks, or kennels are most at risk. 
  • Lyme disease. Dogs bitten by a tick infected with Borrelia burgforferi bacterium are at risk for Lyme disease. Signs include limping, vomiting, and lethargy. Humans can also contract Lyme from an infected tick, but the condition is not spread from dogs to humans.
  • Canine influenza (dog flu). Like human flu, dog flu is a respiratory illness in most U.S. states. Dogs who attend daycare, dog parks, or boarding facilities are most at risk. The disease is spread through respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated objects. Signs include a runny nose, fever, and a cough that does not improve with antibiotics. 
  • Leptospirosis. The leptospira spp. bacteria are found in urine-contaminated water and soil and are most prevalent in warmer climates with heavy rainfall. The bacteria is primarily spread by ingesting contaminated water or contacting infected wildlife urine. This disease can affect dogs and other mammals. Leptospirosis primarily affects the kidneys and liver, and signs can include fever, lethargy, bleeding, vomiting, yellowing of the skin, and bruising.

Puppy Vaccination Schedule: Initial Vaccines and Yearly Boosters

Core vaccinations are often required for travel, boarding, dog parks, or other dog-specific events. Your puppy can begin receiving most of their core vaccinations when they are six weeks old, followed by boosters every two to four weeks until they reach 16 weeks of age. Most puppies will receive three booster shots of the core vaccinations. Puppies must be at least 12 weeks old to receive their first rabies vaccination.

Non-core vaccines often require two doses during the initial puppy shots. After completing the initial core vaccination series, dogs should receive an additional booster one year after their last puppy vaccine visit. Adult dogs two years and older can generally receive core vaccine boosters every three years, depending on state laws and individual facility requirements. The AAHA chart here provides vaccine recommendations based on your puppy's age.

Louie the dog sits in the lap of a smiling Dr. Juli.

Possible Reactions and Side-Effects to Puppy Vaccines

Some pet parents may be reluctant to vaccinate their puppies because they are concerned it will make them sick or cause an adverse reaction. Although very rare, vaccine reactions can occur in any dog and should be quickly addressed when recognized. Most dogs may be a little tired on the day of their vaccinations, and some may experience mild soreness at the vaccine site.

However, immediately contact your veterinarian if your dog experiences any of the following signs:

Your veterinarian will determine the best treatment for your pet's symptoms. Pets with a history of vaccine reactions will require medication before their next booster shots to prevent future adverse reactions. 

Preventive Care Tips to Support Your Puppy’s Overall Wellness

In addition to vaccinations, there are other vital components to ensure your puppy remains healthy through all life stages. Ensure to complete all of their vaccination visits; missing a dose can put your pup at risk for dangerous infectious diseases.

Other preventive care tips include:

  • Regularly give your puppy veterinary-approved parasite prevention medication.
  • Refrain from visiting dog parks, doggy daycare, groomers, or spending time with other dogs until your pup's vaccination series is complete.
  • Feed your puppy a complete and balanced AAFCO-approved diet.
  • Train your puppy to have good puppy manners.
  • Provide your pup with healthy treats that support their immune system.

For more information and tips on your dog's health, check out the Native Pet blog.

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