By Jessie Taylor
After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, most South Africans have become aware of the critical role vaccination plays in preventing disease and reducing illness. But you may not have realised that your pets also need to be vaccinated to protect them from several dangerous illnesses they are at risk of contracting.
Your local veterinarian is not just there to monitor your pet’s reproductive health or treat them in case of an injury; they are also working to prevent outbreaks of diseases among pets through vaccination.
As World Veterinary Day is celebrated on the last Saturday of April, this month is an ideal time to visit your nearest veterinarian and ensure your pet’s immunisation is up to date.
Preventing disease through vaccination
World Veterinary Day was created in 2000 by the World Veterinary Association to highlight and promote the lifesaving work performed by veterinarians. One of the ways they do this is by ensuring your pet’s vaccinations are up to date.
Much like in humans, pet vaccines are designed to trigger a protective immune response by stimulating the immune system’s production of antibodies. This helps prepare your pet’s immune system to fight future infections and diseases. These vaccines can prevent infection or lessen the severity of contagious diseases such as canine distemper, parvovirus infection and respiratory tract infections.
According to the South African Veterinary Association, there are two groups of vaccinations: core and non-core.
Core vaccines should be administered to every pet because they protect against widespread diseases with serious effects. These include vaccination against canine distemper virus, canine adenovirus, canine parainfluenza virus, canine and rabies for dogs. Cats should receive core vaccinations for feline panleukopenia, feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus and rabies.
Non-core vaccines are only given strategically when a particular disease is prevalent in an area or under specific circumstances.
Depending on the vaccine and your pet’s health, you can expect a vaccine to last between one and three years. Some vaccines will require more frequent administration, so it’s best to ask your veterinarian to determine a vaccination schedule for your pet.
Puppies and kittens are more susceptible to infectious disease because their immune system is not fully mature. Vets will typically recommend a series of vaccines, around three to four weeks apart, to ensure complete protection. It’s important to finish this series of vaccines; otherwise, your pet may have incomplete immune protection and may be vulnerable to infection. The course will typically be complete once the pet reaches around four months old.
Once your pet reaches adulthood and all core vaccines have been administered, your veterinarian will begin a vaccination schedule of periodic adult boosters.
Just like in people, most pets experience no adverse effects after receiving a vaccination, and the benefits of vaccination far outweigh any risk.
Some animals may show minor side effects, such as a fever or a lack of appetite. These are normal and will be short-lived.
In the rare event that your pet suffers a strong allergic reaction with symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, hives or difficulty breathing, it’s best to contact your vet immediately.
While vaccination offers the essential benefit of protecting your pet from illness, it also provides an opportunity for regular check-ups with your veterinarian. These checks will allow the early detection of chronic diseases such as heart disease, renal disease and tumours. It will also ensure your pet is checked for parasites.
Protecting pets and loved ones against rabies
Every year, around 60 000 people die of rabies around the world. This disease, which is not transmissible from human to human, requires urgent treatment – often with prophylaxis, wound cleaning, human rabies vaccines and rabies immunoglobulin – and is often fatal.
The virus infects the central nervous system, ultimately causing disease in the brain and death.
This disease, primarily carried by dogs, is entirely preventable through vaccination. This means that vaccinating dogs (to reach around 70% of herd immunity) will most likely keep humans safe from the disease.
Yet poor rabies prevention and control measures still see cases regularly occurring on the continent. Towards the end of last year, there was an increase in rabies cases in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Western Cape. This saw provincial governments undertaking large rabies vaccination rollouts for dogs.
Providing veterinary services to rural areas can pose a challenge, but the lack of vaccination was no doubt exacerbated by the pandemic and the distribution to veterinary services.
There are on average around 10 cases reported in humans in South Africa every year – very often with children most affected.