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What Vaccines Do Dogs and Cats Really Need?

You and your veterinarian should discuss all aspects of your pet's health care program—including diet, exercise, deworming and of course, pet vaccinations at your pet’s regularly scheduled checkups.

And while we all understand the importance of vaccinating our pets to keep them healthy and avoid serious illness, let's take a moment to review the essential vaccinations for dogs and cats and outline their benefits.

Why Do Pets Need Vaccinations?

Diseases are caused by pathogens, which include virus, bacteria or other microorganisms that invade your pet's body and can cause harm.

“The illnesses we vaccinate for are serious, can be fatal to your pet, and can be very expensive to treat,” says Dr. Jim D. Carlson, a veterinarian and owner of Riverside Animal Clinic and Holistic Center in Chicago's northwest suburbs.

A vaccine introduces your pet's immune system to a compromised form of an actual pathogen. Vaccines stimulate the immune system and teach it to recognize particular harmful pathogens through a no-longer-harmful form of that virus or microorganism. If your pet encounters the true pathogen in the future, their immune system will recognize the invader and can immediately begin to fight the disease, effectively stopping it from causing disease.

When Should Pets Receive Vaccinations?

It is especially important for puppies and kittens to get their initial vaccinations. Puppies and kittens should remain with their mothers until they are at least 8 weeks old, after which your veterinarian can begin to administer a series of vaccinations.
However, some initial vaccinations are sometimes given by the breeder or shelter at 6 weeks old, as an extra layer of protection, so pet parents will want to verify which, if any, vaccinations were given to the puppies and kittens when they take them home.
It's important to note that many vaccines require a series of shots be given over time in order to become or remain fully effective.
“Plan on seeing your veterinarian at around 8, 11 and 14 weeks for puppy vaccinations for distemper, parvovirus, parainfluenza, hepatitis, bordetella,” says Carlson. The rabies vaccination is given between 12 and 16 weeks. All vaccinations will then require boosters to keep them up to date and your pet covered.
For a more detailed view of vaccinations needed at different times, you can view our:

Necessary Pet Vaccinations

While some vaccinations are recommended only for pets with specific risk factors, there are others that are either required by law or necessary to protect your pet from serious disease.

Necessary Dog Vaccinations

DAPP Booster

The DAPP booster vaccination is recommended for puppies who are 6 to 8 weeks of age. According to Dr. Nicole Fulcher, assistant director of the Animal Medical Center of Mid-America, it helps protect dogs against distemper virus, adenovirus type 1 and type 2, canine parainfluenza virus and parvovirus.

“Your veterinarian will administer this vaccine through an injection under the skin where it can be absorbed into the bloodstream quickly,” she says. You can expect it to be given every two to four weeks until the dog is 16 weeks old, then given as a booster administered annually.

Rabies Vaccination

Rabies vaccinations are required by law in most states, and all dog parents should take this seriously. “It is given through an injection when the dog reaches 12 or 16 weeks old, depending on the law of where you are located. Then it is given as a booster no later than one year after the first dose was administered. Depending on where you live, your veterinarian may recommend a one- or three-year vaccine for future vaccines as long as your pet’s current vaccination has not expired.


Kennel cough, which can be caused by many bacteria and viruses, is most commonly caused by the bacteria bordetella. The bordetella vaccination can be important for prevention of spreading kennel cough. And although it is not considered a core vaccination for dogs, Fulcher says, it’s often necessary based on the lifestyle of you and your pet. “Most boarding kennels, doggie day cares and groomers require dogs to have the bordetella vaccine to help prevent kennel cough,” she says. If you are not sure whether your pet needs this vaccination, ask your grooming salon, day care and other locations your pet may frequent, and discuss their requirements with your veterinarian. 

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Necessary Cat Vaccinations

FVRCP Booster

Like the core booster vaccine for dogs, this version for cats helps prevent rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and Panleukopenia (distemper) in cats, says Fulcher, all of which can be deadly.

“Kittens should receive their first FVRCP vaccine at 6 to 8 weeks old, followed by three boosters four weeks apart. Adult cats should receive the booster each year.”

Rabies Vaccine

Cats are also required by many states to have proof of a rabies vaccination. The schedule, says Fulcher, is the same as the one for dog rabies vaccinations. It’s often given initially at 12 to 16 weeks, with a follow-up vaccination after a year of the first one. A rabies booster is then required every one to three years (depending on the vaccine administered) for your feline family member.

Other Pet Vaccinations to Consider

While the following vaccinations are not considered core or required by law, it may be beneficial to discuss the pros and cons of each with your veterinarian to decide on the best course of preventative care for your pet.

The following are pet vaccinations to consider:

Canine Influenza Vaccination

If dogs are at risk of exposure to the canine influenza virus, this vaccine can protect against the viral disease that can become deadly. “Canine influenza is a viral infection that is easily spread to other dogs,” says Fulcher. “It can cause respiratory infection with a cough, nasal or eye discharge, sneezing and lethargy.”

Vaccination against canine influenza is often recommended for dogs that are exposed to other dogs in settings such as dog parks, boarding facilities or through travel. Just as there are multiple flu strains in humans, there are actually two strains of the canine flu, and there is a newer bivalent vaccine available that can protect against both. If you are considering vaccinating your pet against canine influenza, asking your vet about this option is a good idea.

Leptospirosis Vaccination

Fulcher explains that leptospirosis is a disease that is spread through bacteria found in soil and water. It’s more common in warmer climates and areas with high rainfall.

“Leptospirosis can be spread from animals to people and can cause flu-like symptoms,” says Fulcher. The vaccination, which is given annually, can be effective in preventing Leptospirosis.

Lyme Disease Vaccination

Lyme disease is transmitted to pets through deer ticks and can cause serious health complications if left untreated. Flea and tick medications can help prevent a pet from being exposed to Lyme disease but does not directly prevent disease. The Lyme vaccine may be effective for pets who are at greater risk of contracting the disease.

“Based on the level of risk and your dog’s lifestyle, your veterinarian will determine if the annual vaccine is a good option for your dog,” says Fulcher.

Feline Leukemia Vaccination

Feline leukemia is spread in cats through bite wounds, sharing milk between mothers and kittens, and sharing food bowls or litter boxes with infected felines. To prevent your cat from contracting this disease, your veterinarian may recommend this vaccination.

“Feline leukemia testing is recommended for all kittens or cats prior to vaccinations,” says Fulcher. “Cats who spend any time outdoors or who come in contact with other cats may benefit from the annual vaccine.

Side Effects of Pet Vaccinations

Vaccines protect your dog or cat from very serious diseases, but some may have side effects that pet parents should be aware of.

“It is not uncommon for a pet to have a mild fever, swelling at the vaccination site, decreased appetite and lower-than-normal energy level,” says Fulcher. “Side effects may start within a couple of hours after receiving the vaccination. If the side effects last more than a day, it is advisable that you call your veterinarian.”

Some pets may also experience allergic reactions to vaccines, and pet parents should monitor pets closely for any signs of an allergic reaction.

“Allergic reactions to vaccines are serious and can be life-threatening,” says Fulcher. “Call your veterinarian right away if your pet is itching, experiencing swelling around the face, neck, or eyes, vomiting, having diarrhea or having difficulty breathing.”

Although the side effects of vaccinations can cause mild discomfort for your pets, reactions are incredibly rare, meaning the long-term benefits far outweigh any short-term concerns.

If you have questions about vaccinations or are worried about over vaccinating your pet, make sure to speak with your veterinarian.

“It is important to discuss your concerns and questions with your veterinarian about which vaccinations are appropriate for your pet,” says Fulcher. “As your pet ages and lifestyles can change, vaccination protocols can be adjusted by your veterinarian.”

If your pet is ready for their vaccinations, find a clinic near you, or schedule an appointment with your veterinarian today.