Puppies just like human babies are vulnerable to disease. Upon birth, they receive very potent antibodies that provide protection against ubiquitous, devastating, and life-threatening diseases, such as rabies and distemper.
Unfortunately, these maternal antibodies start to wear off at around 9-16 weeks of age. At that point puppies become very vulnerable to disease. Vaccines are the most effective way to provide your puppy with good health, longevity, and a good quality of life.
This is not to say or imply that vaccines are 100% risk free. Not at all.
Check out this 4-minute video by Dr. Clayton Greenway from Health care for pets about Vaccine Reactions in Dogs and Cat
Everything you need to know about vaccine reactions for dogs and cats
However, a very important consideration is that the benefits of vaccinating your puppy outweigh the risks.
To put things in perspective, here's a quote from the American Animal Hospital Association regarding dog vaccines.
“Vaccinations not only protect pets, but also play a role in protecting humans. Approximately 59,000 people worldwide die each year from rabies, according to the World Health Organization, but only one or two deaths occur in the US, where laws require pets to be vaccinated…Widespread vaccination means that few pets get rabies and few humans are exposed.” - American Animal Hospital Association
What Are Core Vs. Non-Core Vaccinations for Puppies?
Before getting too deep, one thing you might find helpful to know is the difference between core and non-core vaccinations.
Core vaccinations are vaccines given to every puppy, barring exceptional circumstances.
These are given because the diseases they protect against are common, ubiquitous, and usually deadly, but the good news is, they are also preventable.
There are zero reasons not to give them and every reason to do so, so they're recommended for every single puppy.
Non-core vaccinations are "optional" vaccinations. They're still usually a good idea to get, but you might not need to get all of them.
For example, a vaccination against Lyme exists, but if you don't live in an area where Lyme is common and you don't intend to travel to such a location with your pup, you may opt to forego the vaccine.
It doesn't hurt to give it to them anyway, but you aren't required to do so.
What Are the Core Vaccinations for Puppies?
Now that we know there are two groups of vaccines, you’re probably wondering which ones are core. The good news is, there aren’t many, but we’ll talk about each one.
Rabies – As the name suggests, this is the vaccine against rabies. Since rabies has no real cure (or rather, science is still working on finding one, and while there are a few promising studies, nothing is in production yet), the vaccine is critical.
“Rabies is a virus that is transmitted through the saliva of an infected animal. Rabies attacks the brain and central nervous system of infected animal. Once symptoms appear, the virus is almost always fatal. Dogs are the most common animal that spreads the rabies virus to humans.”- Rebecca F. Wish | Michigan State University
That's it! If you live in an area where Lyme disease is common, the Lyme vaccine might be considered core for you, and if you plan to have social dogs or bring your dog to shows, other vaccinations may be considered core, but for the most part, everything else is non-core.
There are quite a few additional vaccinations you can give your puppy. It's usually a good idea to talk to your vet and ask them which vaccinations they recommend.
Non-core vaccinations include:
Parainfluenza, which is a form of the flu. Depending on what vaccine combo your vet uses, this could be combined with the DHP vaccine mentioned above, but this additional protection is called the DHPP vaccine.
Leptospirosis, which is a common bacteria found in soil and water. The disease can be mild or fatal, with little rhyme or reason as to which, but since it's easy to vaccinate against, it's a common vaccine for puppies.
Bordetella, which is an upper respiratory infection not too dissimilar from COVID. It's also commonly known as "kennel cough" because it spreads in kennels, doggy daycares, and other areas where many dogs socialize with one another.
Canine Influenza, which is another version of the flu. The flu is extremely common in humans and many animals, and there are thousands of variants, but the canine vaccine handles two of the most common and dangerous varieties. You will likely need annual boosters for your fur baby to keep them safe, just like you should get your own flu shots every year too.
Lyme. As mentioned above, Lyme may or may not be an issue in your area. If it is, it's a good idea to get the vaccine for your furry friend.
Giardia. Giardia is a parasite that can cause intestinal problems in dogs and can be devastating if it isn't caught early. Luckily, there's a vaccine against even this parasite, which can be given to your puppy any time after they're 8 weeks old. Unfortunately, the vaccine only lasts for about six months, so regular boosters are a must to keep up that protection.
Coronavirus. Yup, the coronavirus in general wasn’t a new thing in 2020. "Coronavirus" is actually a very broad category with dozens of different primary types and uncountable subspecies and mutations. The version of the coronavirus that dogs commonly get is not the same as the one people get. This coronavirus vaccine only protects against canine coronavirus or CCoV.
Rattlesnake. No, you can't vaccinate your dog against snakes in general. What you can do is vaccinate them against the toxic effects of rattlesnake venom in case they happen to get bitten by a snake. For obvious reasons, this isn't required in areas where rattlesnakes aren't common.
Most of these vaccines are shots, though the Bordetella vaccine can be given orally or nasally. Many of them also require periodic boosters, either annually or whenever you're going to travel.
This one is tricky to answer because it depends on the variant of the vaccines being given.
For example, if you're getting a DHP vaccine and a Parainfluenza vaccine, they might be two separate shots, or they might be combined into one (known as DHPP). There's also a five-course shot that includes Leptospirosis called DHLPP.
At the same time, many of these vaccines are two-shot courses, or more, similar to how our COVID vaccine was two shots with boosters.
At the bare minimum, your puppy might need five or six shots to get the full initial course of the DHP and Rabies vaccines.
A full course of all of the vaccines might be more like 12-14 shots over the course of the first year or two of your puppy's life. After that, they'll still need boosters, but only every couple of years.
A puppy vaccination schedule starts when your fur baby is around 6-8 weeks old. At this age, they're young, sensitive, and potentially exposed to many diseases.
They're also starting to socialize, run around, and get into things, which puts them at high risk.
Here's what a vaccination schedule might look like.
6-8 weeks old: your puppy will get their first vaccinations, along with a checkup and any other medications your vet might recommend. This appointment will generally include the first shot of the DHP or DHPP vaccine, along with the Bordetella and Lyme vaccines if necessary.
10-14 weeks old: your puppy will be back for a checkup and to make sure everything is going fine with them. They'll get their second shots for DHP/DHPP, Bordetella, and Lyme. If your vet recommends it, this is also the time when they'll get their first shot of the Leptospirosis (Lepto) vaccine as well.
16-20 weeks old: your puppy comes in for another checkup. If all goes well, this is when they'll get their final course of DHP/DHPP, Bordetella, and Lyme. They'll get their second shot of Lepto if they got the first, and they'll get their first shot of the Rabies vaccine if your state laws recommend it that early.
From here, it all depends on your vet and your vaccination schedule. Rabies vaccines, for example, will need a second shot around one year old, and boosters every 1-3 years after that to keep up the protection.
Some vets are starting to recommend adding another shot of DHP/DHPP at 18 months to refresh coverage as well.
So, for something like DHPP, your pup might get shots at 7 weeks, 11 weeks, 15 weeks, 19 weeks, 1 year, and every three years after that to make sure coverage keeps up.
Again, some of these vaccinations are required, and some are not, and it may depend on your circumstances. Don’t worry, your vet will guide you through the process.
Is It Illegal to Not Vaccinate a Puppy?
If we set aside the question of why you might want to avoid vaccinations (there's no good reason to avoid them unless your puppy is immunocompromised in the first place; not vaccinating them puts them in danger that can be avoided or prevented entirely), some people might be curious what the legality is of the vaccination system.
The answer is yes; it's generally illegal to skip vaccinations, at least the DHP and Rabies vaccinations in most states. Other vaccinations – the non-core vaccinations – may be mandated by laws in some areas but are not generally mandated across the country.
There's no firm answer to this question because it's down to state law to determine what vaccinations are required at what ages.
You'll need to check with your vet and with your state laws to determine what the vaccination list should be unless you plan to be safe and give your puppy every vaccination they can get, so they're as protected as possible.
For example, this map contains a list of the applicable laws for the rabies vaccination in every state. Check it to see what your state has to say about the issue (at least, as of the last time that site was updated), and double-check with your vet to make sure.
How Can You Track What Vaccines Your Puppy Has Been Given?
If you're concerned about the number and frequency of vaccinations, you don't have to be. For one thing, when you get vaccines from your vet, you will also be given paperwork to keep and records of their vaccinations.
Now, sure, you might not want to keep that paperwork on hand at all times, but that's fine, too; your vet will have records of your puppy's vaccinations, both physically and electronically.
The only risk you might encounter is if your vet closes, and even then, records are generally transferable.
Are Puppy Vaccinations Expensive?
Luckily, no. Everyone wants what's best for their puppy and for all puppies everywhere, and that means vaccinations generally aren't too expensive.
Especially not when compared to the vet bills of treating a dog that catches a preventable illness!
A full course of the core vaccinations will usually run about $100-$200, depending on where you live and what your vet charges.
Full courses of every vaccine you can possibly give to your puppy are going to be more expensive, of course, but even then, it's still pretty reasonable.
There might also be local ways you can get vaccinations at a discount or even free if there are community organizations or other aid groups that can help you out.
Check out your local animal shelter as they often provide these services at a lower rate than your vet. Just be sure to give a copy of the vaccinations to your vet so your records are all in one place.
Can You Vaccinate Against Worms, Fleas, or Other Parasites?
Unfortunately, no. There aren't any long-lasting or permanent treatments available for things like heartworms, tapeworms, ticks or fleas.
This is because any existing medications that deal with these infections are chemical in nature – that is, they enter your dog's system, do their work, and are metabolized out.
They don't interface with your fur baby's immune system and can't provide permanent protection.
That's not to say there won't be a vaccine in the future. Medical technology is always improving, and the development of mRNA vaccines like the COVID vaccine in humans helps push technology forward.
It's entirely possible that new vaccines will be developed in the coming years that can protect against even more problems. In the meantime, you’ll have to stick with oral or topical preventatives.
Do You Have Other Questions?
If you have any questions about vaccinations or really anything else about your puppy (or kitty), feel free to ask! I love fur babies of all kinds, and I'm always around to help out in any way I can.
I also love hearing your stories, so even if all you want to do is share a fun tale of your fuzzy tails, go right ahead.
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more