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  • Writer's picturemichael raff

Dog Vaccines Demystified

Truckee is a dog's paradise of a town. There are lots of dogs that live and that visit here running around, playing in the woods and splashing in the lakes and streams. There are boundless areas for dogs, and also wildlife, to roam and explore. This all means that our dogs can be exposed to the microorganisms that can cause serious illness or death. The good news is, many of these diseases are preventable with vaccines or medications.

Many dog owners wonder which vaccines and preventative medications their dog actually needs, how often they have to be revaccinated, and why. We'll explain the required, core, and some optional vaccines to consider for your dog.

What exactly is a vaccine?

A vaccine is a preparation of either killed or altered (modified live) microorganisms. When the vaccine is administered into your dog's body, their immune system learns how to fight off that specific microorganism if it enters their system in the future. That way, the dog will have a less severe/ shorter duration illness, or ideally, not get sick at all.

Puppies typically gain natural immunity from their mother while they are nursing. As they wean, they usually need to receive a series of initial vaccinations to ensure their own bodies develop long term immunity.

Required (by Town of Truckee and State of CA)


Rabies is a zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transmitted between animals and humans by saliva, typically through a bite. The rabies virus attacks the Central Nervous System and is almost always fatal for dogs. California is considered a rabies endemic state and vaccination is mandatory by law.

The vaccination schedule is a first shot given around 4 months old, a booster after 1 year and then a booster every three years after that.

Core Vaccines (recommended for all dogs regardless of location, lifestyle, etc)


This combination vaccine protects your dog from four respiratory, neurologic, and gastrointestinal viruses that are in the environment and easy to contract through contact with an affected dog or contaminated feces. Often the treatment for any of these diseases is far more expensive and risky than the preventative vaccine.

  • Distemper virus (in the same class as measles) is highly infectious and spread by respiratory droplets. It targets the lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and even the brain in some cases.

  • Canine Adenovirus/Infectious Canine Hepatitis is transmitted through bodily secretions and causes respiratory symptoms followed by liver damage and/or eye damage.

  • Canine Parvovirus is an extremely contagious and very serious virus that causes gastrointestinal signs, sometimes severe and even fatal. Spread by feces and very hardy - it is found everywhere in the environment and survives even cold, snowy winter. Puppies and unvaccinated dogs are extremely susceptible.

  • Parainfluenza is a respiratory virus transmitted via respiratory secretions. It one of the causes of “kennel cough.”

As puppies are weaning off of nursing, and thus the immunity received through their mother's milk, they receive a series of DAPP or DHPP shots to build their own immune response capacity between 6-16 weeks old. They are given a booster after 1 year and then typcally revaccinated every 3 years after that.

Non-Core Vaccines (may or may not be recommended for your dog based on age, lifestyle, location, health conditions,etc)

Leptospirosis (optional based on lifestyle)

Lepto is a bacterial infection found in soil and standing water contaminated with urine from infected rodents. Symptoms of the disease can range from mild gastrointestinal signs to liver and/or kidney failure. It is zoonotic, so it can be spread to humans. This makes vets more likely to recommend this vaccination to protect animal and human populations.

If your dog is in good health and spends a lot of time playing in the woods in or near water it is may be a good idea to give them this vaccine.

Your dog needs an initial dose and booster and then revaccination every year after that.

Bordetella (Kennel Cough) (optional based on lifestyle, but may be required by boarding or day care facilities, groomers, etc.)

Bordetella is a very infectious, airborne upper respiratory virus. It is typically not life threatening, but causes a dry honking cough that may last several weeks. The bacteria is easily spread between dogs through nasal or oral secretions. So any dog that frequently interacts with lots of other dogs at dog parks, on Buddy outings, at boarding facilities, etc. will benefit from this vaccine.

This is commonly given as an intranasal spray in the dog's nose, though oral and injectable forms are available as well. Immunity begins 48-72 hours after vaccination. Pups as young as 6 weeks old can receive this vaccine. It requires annual revaccination.

What about vaccine reactions?

Banfield Pet Hospital and Purdue University Veterinary Medicine did a study of vaccine associated adverse reactions between 2016-2020 and found that 18.4 adverse events occurred for every 10,000 dogs vaccinated. The number of dogs that actually die after receiveing a vaccine is very, very low. One 2021 report cited 3 deaths out of over 1.2 million dogs that received a vaccine.

Adverse vaccine reactions included:

  • Pain at the injection site, which may also result in lethargy or sluggishness

  • Intestinal upset, which may result in vomiting and/or diarrhea

  • Swelling of the face, lips, around the eyes and hives (multiple bumps on the skin)

They found that smaller dogs and dogs receiving multiple vaccines in the same visit were most likely to have a reaction. Five reported breeds among the highest adverse reaction incidence were miniature Dachshund, Boston terrier, miniature Pinscher, French bulldog, and Italian Greyhound. Larger breeds such as Labradors and Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds normally have very low rates of adverse reactions.

So, most of us can rest assured that our dogs will recover just fine from any vaccines they receive even if they have a minor adverse reaction. To minimize any chance of this try not to schedule your dog to receive more than one vaccine in an appointment.

Vaccine Titre Tests

As your dog gets older and they have been revaccinated multiple times they have likely built up solid immunity. Guidelines for vaccines are often very conservative estimates of immunity duration and you may be able to revaccinate your dog less frequently than recommended if you have a titre test done to measure your dog's immunity duration. If your vet determines that your pet has adequate immunity, then they do not need to receive their booster and you can maximize the length of time between vaccine boosters for your dog. There is no reason to over-vaccinate your dog, but ensuring they have an adequate immune response to protect them from serious infection is a good idea. Ask around to various Truckee and Reno vet offices to determine the best availability and pricing for titre tests.

Preventative Medications


Heartworm comes from mosquitoes that carry the heartworm larva. When an infected mosquito bites your dog it deposits heartworm larvae in the bloodstream. The larvae then lodge and grow in your dog's lungs and heart which can be fatal. Heartworm is ONLY transmitted through mosquitoes and cannot be spread from dog to dog or dog to human.

Though the prevalence of heartworm infected mosquitoes in the Tahoe Basin is low, the rate of heartworm infection just "down the hill" in Placerville/ Grass Valley/ Auburn is one of the highest in CA. Most vets recommend a monthly preventative for any dog that joins you for travel anywhere out of the Tahoe region such as to the foothills, Bay Area, Carson Valley, or Southern California.

The monthly preventative pill for heartworm contains two different dewormers - Ivermectin (treats heartworm) and Pyrantel Pamoate (treats roundworms and hookworms found in the GI tract). These dewormers work by killing any larvae they encounter in your dog before they can mature into worms. They don't technically prevent heartworm, they just kill any larvae before they become a problem.

Certain dog breeds including most herding Border Collies, Whippets, Australian Shepherds, German Shepherds, and Sheepdogs can carry a genetic mutation that makes them more prone to seizures and other serious neurological complications from Ivermectin and other Heartworm preventative ingredients. Talk to your vet about the safest option for your dog if you own one of these breeds.

Flea & Tick

If you and your dog frequently travel to lower elevations than Tahoe you may want to consider dosing them with a topical flea & tick preventative before you travel.

While cold, snowy Tahoe winters keep flea & tick populations low, they can still exist. Since lots of people, pets and wildlife (like deer) migrate between lower and higher elevations it is quite common for them to transport ticks to this region, especially in the springtime.


We all want our dogs to be happy and healthy, to be able to run free and enjoy what the mountain life has to offer. But there are preventable risks to living the good life that we need to take into consideration. It is a good idea to weigh the risks and benefits of vaccinating your dog against the diseases they are likely to be exposed to in their day to day lives. It is important to be informed and proactive so that you don't vaccinate your dog more often than necessary or give them medications they don't really need.

It is critical to talk to your veterinarian about any questions or concerns you might have. Have a list ready to discuss with your vet based on your dog's breed, age, other health concerns, lifestyle, travel plans, etc and work with them to come up with a vaccination plan that makes sense for your unique dog. Ultimately, it is up to each of us to appropriately vaccinate our own dogs and help protect the larger dog and human population by staying on top of preventing serious diseases.

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