Pet Vaccines 101

We asked a San Diego veterinarian exactly what you need to know about vaccinating your pets, including cost, exemptions, local advice and more

pet vaccines vet

Most pet owners are on board when it comes to vaccinating their dogs against canine parvovirus and their dogs and cats against rabies. But there is some controversy regarding the many vaccinations our vets recommend. Many times I have been asked, “Why do our pets need all these shots?”, “How often are these shots really necessary?” or “Are they safe?”

To get the best answers to these queries and others, I spoke with veterinarian Julie Breher of La Jolla Veterinary Hospital. Here’s what she said:

Are vaccines safe?

Most vaccines are incredibly safe and effective. Serious vaccine reactions occur in about 1 in 10,000 cases. A veterinarian should be involved in discussing these risks with each and every pet owner. All concerns should be addressed on an individual basis so that the pet owner can make a confident and informed decision based on the facts. 

At what age should you start vaccinating pets?

Vaccine series are generally initiated in the 8-12 weeks of age range. Some breeders start giving vaccines earlier than this, which is still typically very safe. Exposure to environments such as dog parks, pet day cares or other dogs and cats—which may be contagious—should be avoided until all intended vaccines have been administered.

Do dogs and cats really need shots?

If the risk of getting a disease is high enough, then vaccination is generally recommended. Some diseases have a very high mortality rate or can be contagious to humans (i.e.: rabies). In these cases, vaccination is definitely strongly recommended and may even be legally required (see next question). In other cases, certain vaccines may be required in order to utilize services, such as boarding and grooming facilities. A veterinarian should be involved in helping pet parents make informed decisions based on risk, benefit and the law.

What shots are required by law?

Per the San Diego Humane Society (which took over the department of Animal Control from San Diego County last year), San Diego County and the cities of Oceanside, Vista and Imperial Beach require all dogs get a rabies vaccination and a license within 30 days of reaching 4 months of age. The same requirements hold true if you buy or adopt a dog or move to Escondido, Imperial Beach, Oceanside, Poway, San Marcos or Vista.

Can pets be exempted from this law if they are allergic or have a compromised immune system?

The San Diego Humane Society allows letters of exemption to be submitted by veterinarians in order to comply with licensing without a rabies vaccine. This is a special form a California-licensed veterinarian will need to fill out and provide to the owner.

Can pets be exempted from this law if they are exclusively indoor house pets and don’t go out to the beach or park?

Exemptions are only provided for pets whose health status dictates avoiding vaccination. Lifestyle is not an accepted reason for exempting pets from receiving the rabies vaccine. A veterinarian should be consulted to discuss the actual risks and benefits to the pet.

Should pets be vaccinated yearly?

Repeat vaccinations should be considered based on lifestyle, medical status, age, number of previous vaccines, the law and vaccine manufacturers’ recommendations. It is not uncommon to change vaccine recommendations when one of the above factors changes. For example, a dog who develops an immune-mediated disease would likely not be a good candidate for further vaccination. Also, an indoor-only cat who starts having access to the outside world would likely benefit from additional vaccines.

What do vaccinations cost?

Vaccine costs are variable based on the type of vaccine used, the manufacturer, the duration of immunity achieved and the level of care provided. A pet owner should always have the cost communicated clearly before any treatment or procedure is performed on the pet.

What diseases are more prevalent in San Diego?

San Diego is home to a wide variety of ecosystems with coastal, mountain and desert areas that each have their own unique contagious risks. There are several core vaccines recommended in any ecosystem, but additional vaccines (leptospira, Lyme disease, rattlesnake vaccine, etc.) should be considered based on exposure risk. A local veterinarian should be consulted regarding which diseases are prevalent in a given location.

How many domestic animal rabies cases were reported in San Diego county in the last 3-5 years?

Per the 2017 San Diego County Annual Communicable Disease Report, domestic dogs, cats and other household pets have not tested positive for rabies for more than 40 years. But that’s not a reason not to vaccinate since rabies-positive bats have been found in many areas in the county, especially during the warmer summer and early fall months.

What is the titer test and do you recommend it?

A titer is a test to measure antibody levels to specific diseases. At this time, the only titer tests commonly used are those for the distemper and parvoviruses in dogs. If the titers are adequate, a repeat vaccination is unnecessary, because the immunity has been proven to be sufficient. Titers should be repeated annually. (There is a rabies titer test, which is only used for travel to Hawaii and certain foreign countries. The San Diego Humane Society does not allow titer testing in lieu of a current rabies vaccine.)

What is your biggest concern about a pet owner who decides not to vaccinate?

The biggest concern that could arise from having an under-vaccinated population is that preventable contagious disease incidences will rise.

Pet Birds and Vaccines

There are a few vaccines available for the birds we keep as pets. Veterinarian Jeffrey R. Jenkins at the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital, Inc. gives us the scoop.


Canaries and finches

These birds are susceptible to the poxvirus. Pox is spread from bird to bird by mosquitoes and other biting flies. Canaries and finches that might be exposed to these pests should be vaccinated for poxvirus. The vaccine is administered in the wing web of the bird. The shot causes a mild case of pox resulting in a scabby lesion at the vaccination site, much like the smallpox vaccine used in humans in the past.

Young parrots

Juvenile parrots are at risk if they are hand-fed. If chicks under the age of weaning are exposed to adult birds carrying the polyomavirus the result is lethal. Luckily there is a vaccine available. It is most often administered to chicks that will be raised in pet shops or homes that have adult birds or in situations where it is known that the polyomavirus has caused problems in the past.

West Nile virus

West Nile may be transmitted to parrots and birds of prey by mosquitoes. We vaccinate both parrot species and birds of prey for West Nile virus using the vaccine made for horses (both humans and horses may be stricken by this virus, causing potentially lethal encephalitis [brain infection]). The vaccination is typically given at the start of the mosquito season and may be boostered in the fall.

Poultry vaccines

Immunizations for poultry are also available. Who gets what vaccine depends on the diseases that area, flock or facility may have had problems with in the past. In our practice we see mostly “backyard” chickens. We recommend that chicks be vaccinated for Marek’s disease, a highly contagious, viral, tumor-causing herpesvirus readily transmitted among chickens. 

Categories: Lifestyles