Antibodies Do a Body Good

August 22, 2013

It seems, almost daily, I see an appointment or return a phone call about a patient who recently received vaccinations and is now acting lethargic. This issue seems to occur most frequently in young kittens and puppies, as well as adult toy breed dogs (Yorkies, toy poodles, Chihuahuas, Maltese…I’m thinking of you!) While it is always concerning to see Fido uncomfortable, tired, shaking, and tender over the areas where the vaccines were administered, I can say with confidence that this is a normal response to vaccination!

Pet owners who also have children can most likely relate to this scenario: infants and small children can run a fever, seem colicky and downright cranky, and may be sore in areas where vaccines were administered by a pediatrician. Even adults can experience mild flu-like symptoms from the influenza vaccine, or develop muscle soreness the day after a vaccine was given. The last time I was bitten by a dog at work (yes it’s a job hazard), I received a tetanus vaccine booster and was unable to lift my arm above my head for a few days afterward, since my shoulder was so sore!

Vaccines are designed to stimulate our immune system, prompting the creation of antibodies against certain diseases (distemper, rabies, panleukopenia, leptospirosis). These antibodies are what protect from future infection. Essentially, vaccinations make us a small bit sick today, so we don’t experience significant illness later. Thus, it is entirely normal for some patients to experience a fever, soreness and lethargy post-vaccination. Think of these symptoms as a positive sign, telling us the patient’s body is working appropriately to create life-saving antibodies!

If Fido or Fluffy experiences discomfort or tiredness after a vaccine, it’s important to understand in most cases this does not represent an allergic reaction to the vaccine! Allergic (anaphylactic) reactions are much more dramatic, and often occur immediately after vaccination (as opposed to normal post-vaccinal malaise, which occurs hours to days afterward.) True allergic reactions to vaccines occur promptly after the vaccine is administered; the patient can collapse, go into shock, have significant swelling of the face, neck and airway, or exhibit vomiting and diarrhea. Fortunately these reactions are rare, but they are life-threatening and require immediate medical attention. More often than not, anaphylatic reactions like these occur so quickly, they happen in our waiting room while the client is preparing to check out. We can treat vaccine reactions with steroids, antihistamines such as Benadryl, and sometimes more aggressive drugs such as epinephrine or atropine if the patient’s heart rate drops dangerously. And then we exercise extreme caution in proceeding with future vaccinations for that patient! We may elect to discontinue some, or all vaccines for that patient, or may pre-medicate to thwart a future reaction.

If Fido does seem uncomfortable after receiving vaccines, talk with your veterinarian about it. We can preemptively prescribe a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory such as Rimadyl; this can reduce fever, pain and discomfort associated with vaccination.

One final note: we frequently hear from clients who have purchased dogs from breeders that “My breeder says that FluffiPuffiBichaCurliPoos are very sensitive to vaccines, and should not receive the leptospirosis vaccine. Or the Lyme vaccine. Or be vaccinated before 6 months of age.” There is absolutely no scientific data to support these claims. No peer-reviewed study in a veterinary journal has confirmed that Breed X or Breed Y is more “allergic” to vaccines than another breed. In these cases, the breeds in question are often toy breeds; smaller breed dogs seem to experience more post-vaccinal discomfort than larger dogs, which is likely where the breeders’ concerns arise. It is potentially dangerous (or fatal) to delay vaccination or to omit certain vaccines altogether, based on breeder recommendations that are not supported by medical fact.

Please discuss any concerns related to vaccination with your veterinarian. We know that, just as with humans, vaccines save lives; they are an essential part of preventative care for Fido and Fluffy. And, while it’s hard to see Fido uncomfortable after he receives his vaccines, know that discomfort is related to Fido’s body working overtime to produce life-saving antibodies! Yay immunity!