Vaccines for Your Pet

Dr. Tammie


November 22, 2021

Have you ever been handed vaccine records for your pet with alphabet soup letters on them and wondered what did my pet actually get? It is very confusing to see FVRCP, FeLV, DHPPC, DHPP/DHLPP, Da2PP and other combinations of letters representing vaccines that seems to make no sense at all.  All these letters combinations on the record each represent a combination of viruses that are important in the protection of your pet.  We will discuss what a vaccine is, why pets need vaccines, Core vs Non-Core vaccines for dogs and cats, and finally some information about estimating costs and scheduling of puppy and kitten vaccines.

What is a vaccine?

Vaccines are a biological preparation that includes either a modified live, killed, or partial recombinant part of the virus or antigen (foreign protein to the body) to stimulate immunity to a specific disease to help prevent occurrence of that disease. In young puppies and kittens, vaccines need to be given several times to help stimulate their immature immune system to make antibodies to the disease.   

Why should your pet get vaccines?

In short vaccines prevent deadly and debilitating diseases in pets some of which can cause death in humans, for example rabies.  Rabies is a viral disease that is distributed worldwide and dog bites are the number-one method of transmission of rabies to humans throughout the world. 

The World Health Organization with the help of vaccine manufacturers have been instrumental in providing rabies vaccines across the globe to pet dogs in need.  Here are some other facts from WHO:


Although rabies is considered the most important vaccine for pets’ other diseases like panleukopenia, leukemia, distemper and parvo can be deadly to kittens and puppies.  Modified live vaccines, those that have been grown continuously to weaken the virus, can cause some mild symptoms as the pet develops antibodies to the disease. Veterinarians and veterinary professional associations have developed a rating system for vaccines those considered “Core” or most important and “Non-Core” those that may be important in some circumstances, like area of the country, environment (urban vs rural), and the pet’s frequency to come in contact with other pets.

Dog Core Vaccines

Vaccines are important to prevent diseases and certain vaccines for dogs are considered Core or necessary.  Rabies since it could be a human health danger is considered one of the most important vaccines.  Rabies vaccines even have local and state legislation built around them because it is so important.  The rabies vaccine is not like other vaccines that are “modified live” but is a killed vaccine.  Modified live vaccines are just an attenuated or weakened version of the virus that is injected to stimulate the immune system.  Obviously, one would not want to be injected with the live rabies and neither does your pet!  Rabies vaccines contain the killed virus so requires an adjuvant or additional immune stimulating substances along with the dead rabies virus to stimulate the immune system to see it as foreign.  Rabies is considered a core vaccine for both cats and dogs.

The second core vaccine for dogs is the distemper combo (sometimes listed as DHPP/DHLPP Da2PP) that generally contains other modified live viruses.  Most canine vaccines considered core contain Canine parvovirus, distemper, canine hepatitis also known as Adenovirus 1, and Canine Adenovirus 2 (severe form of respiratory disease).  All these diseases can be very debilitating to our beloved pups.

Canine parvovirus is more common in younger dogs but can affect older pets that are unvaccinated. Signs of parvovirus generally include lethargy, severe vomiting and diarrhea sometimes with blood.  Canine distemper is a respiratory disease, causing coughing, vomiting, very high fever, pus like eye/nasal discharge and sometimes leads to seizures and even death.  Outbreaks of canine parvovirus and distemper can often occur in young or unvaccinated populations in shelters and animal care facilities. 

Canine hepatitis also known as Canine Adenovirus 1 is a viral infection that affects the liver and kidneys. Canine hepatitis is very debilitating and can cause chronic kidney or liver problems even death in young puppies.  Canine Adenovirus 2 is a severe upper respiratory infection that include coughing, pharynx inflammation, nasal, and eye discharge.  Recovery can be slow in young puppies.  These modified live viruses that are included in the “Distemper Combo” vaccine are also considered core for puppies and dogs.

Cat Core Vaccines

As with dogs, rabies is considered a core vaccine.  Indoor/outdoor cats may have exposure to rabid bats or may fight with rabid wildlife so cats should also get rabies vaccines.

The second core vaccine for kitties is the distemper combination that includes other modified live viruses.  Feline core vaccine usually contains feline herpesvirus 1, feline calicivirus, feline panleukopenia (sometimes referred to as feline distemper), and feline leukemia virus vaccine. 

Both the feline herpesvirus 1 and calicivirus can cause severe upper respiratory infections.  Cats can have lifelong issues with respiratory infections if infected with herpesvirus 1 since it can go dormant for a while and can come back repeatedly.

Feline panleukopenia or feline distemper virus causes lethargy, vomiting and diarrhea much like canine parvo virus and whole litters of kittens can succumb to this virus.  Like parvo outbreaks in dogs, the feline panleukopenia virus can be devastating in shelters or animal care facilities.

Feline leukemia virus causes blood and lymphatic cancers as well as in some individuals latent suppression of the immune system response to other infections or diseases.  Feline leukemia virus is considered a core vaccine in kittens under one year of age. Depending on the lifestyle and if the kitty, for example living indoors/outdoors, will determine if the leukemia virus vaccine is given later in life.  

The feline distemper combination vaccine along with rabies vaccine are consider core vaccines for all our feline snuggle bugs! 

Non-Core Vaccines

Non-Core vaccines are any vaccines considered to be necessary depending on the situation the pet is living in.  Some vaccines should only be given if the pet is in an area or travels to an area where the disease is present.  It is a risk verses benefit that should be weighed by a frank discussion with your veterinarian. If your cat, for example, lives inside only or you have a small dog that never leaves your apartment those pets would have different risks of getting certain diseases than say an indoor/outdoor cat or a dog living on a farm or ranch.  Vaccines are important to help keep your pet healthy and your veterinarian’s recommendations for core vaccines may change during their lifetime depending on your pet’s individual situation and lifestyle.  You can also chat 24/7 with AskVet veterinarians in the AskVet app if needed.

Booster vaccines, what are they and are they necessary?

Vaccines are given to young animals more frequently than adult animals.  There are two reasons for this. 

One is that the immune system in young pets, like young children, is still developing.  By exposing the lymph system and the white blood cells to the modified live or killed viruses in vaccines more than once, more memory cells will be made to prevent an infection by the actual viruses. 

The other reason that young puppies and kittens get booster vaccines every 3-4 weeks, is they may be still carrying in their blood maternal antibodies or antibodies that they got from their mother. These maternal antibodies can bind up all the vaccine antigens (foreign proteins that stimulate immunity) so that there is no immune response by the puppy’s or kitten’s own immune system. It is recommended that breeding pets should be up to date on their vaccines before the planed breeding so that the mother will passively pass on antibodies (passive immunity) to deadly viruses to their offspring.  If the naive immune system of a puppy or kitten is exposed to vaccines sometimes the vaccines can be neutralized by the maternal antibodies and their own immune system may never mount a response.  That is why it is important for puppies and kittens to have multiple exposures to virus vaccines so that as their own immune system memory cells mature, they will be able to mount a response and neutralize the diseases.

Boosters of vaccines in adult pets is recommended for Rabies and other core vaccines depending on the local laws in the case of rabies as well as the lifestyle and previous vaccines the pet was given.  Talk to your veterinarian about when booster vaccines are due and what vaccines would be best for your pet.

Cost of Vaccinations

We all have experienced higher veterinary costs as of late. The cost of treating an acute or chronic disease in pets is often much higher than preventing debilitating diseases.  Treating the average canine parvo case may run into the several hundreds to thousands of dollars.  Likewise chronic conditions in cats like feline leukemia, feline herpes can be a lifetime of medications and veterinary visits that can add up to a substantial lifetime cost. Prevention does save money.

There are several ways to save money on your vaccines and other preventative care.  Many veterinarians have cost saving wellness plans that are a prepaid medical plan.  These plans included deworming, fecal exams, heartworm and feline viral testing and core vaccines. Some plans even include a spay or neuter surgery, flea, tick and intestinal worm prevention.  The total cost of all the services is bought as a package and spread out over monthly installments for the first year. Some plans also give discounts on other services or free exams while you are paying for the plan.  These can help save money as well as help you keep tract of when your pet is due for boosters. 

Pet insurance is another way to save money.  Most insurance plans have special plans for puppies and kittens to help make sure they are getting all their preventative care. Pet insurance makes sense, and most plans want you to get the preventative care done so that it reduces the likelihood of catastrophic diseases. Bivvy is an affordable option for cats and dogs of any age, breed or size.

Other cost saving measures would be to take your pet to animal control/shelter veterinarians or vaccine clinics or mobile vaccination events. Usually, the veterinary staff will suggest a few additional preventative care items, but they can be very busy events and things can be overlooked.  If going to these types of events realize that cats and dogs will be attending (kittens and cats may become very stressed).  Another downside is you will not have a lot of time for questions and you should know what your pet needs beforehand. For example, FeLV testing before FeLV vaccine is given in cats and kittens or heartworm testing completed before preventatives can be prescribed.  Ideally bring any previous records to the event.  Keep in mind also that although these are “wellness” clinics sick pets can be at these events and your pet can be exposed to viral or bacterial diseases.

Along with vaccinations to prevent disease both dogs and cats should have other preventative care. Fecal exams and preventative deworming as well as heart worm testing for dogs and cats and heart worm prevention are very important. Prevention of fleas and ticks also helps prevent the transference of tapeworms via fleas, as well as tick borne illnesses.

Final Thoughts

Never be afraid to ask questions and discuss with your veterinarian all the preventative measures that will help your pup or kitty live a long and healthy life. By making sure your pet is up to date on vaccines and preventative care you can avoid unnecessary illness as well as the costs associated with treating disease. 


That's another pawsitive tip from AskVet's Dr. Tammie! To learn more about vaccines for dogs and cats, you can chat with an AskVet veterinarian 24x7 on the AskVet app any time, day or night.


Use code BIVVY2022 for two months free of AskVet membership!