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What to Do When Your Dog Has a Vaccine Reaction

Posted Dec 02 2010 3:32pm

I S THIS AN EMERGENCY?  If your dog is breathing heavily, his face is swelling and eyes watering, and/or he’s vomiting, has hives or is having a seizure or collapsing, your dog is having a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction. CALL YOUR VET IMMEDIATELY! and start for your vet’s office or an emergency facility while, preferably, someone else drives.  (You do know where the nearest emergency vet is, don’t you?) 

Your vet may not recognize your dog’s symptoms as a vaccine reaction and probably won’t want to believe or admit that the shot he/she administered brought on this problem.  If you believe it’s a vaccine reaction, be strong. You know your dog better than your vet does. Above all, keep your wits about you. Don’t be pressured into doing anything that doesn’t feel right. For example, if your dog has her first seizure ever soon after vaccination, she is probably having a vaccine reaction; she probably does NOT suddenly have a brain tumor requiring a $800 MRI!  As they say, when you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras! 

Similarly, if your vet wants to give your dog antibiotics because she may have developed some unknown infection  the day after the shot (rather than a vaccine reaction), question that assumption. Antibiotics given needlessly can lead to antibiotic resistance and even autoimmune disease, and will destroy good intestinal flora which can potentially lead to gastrointestinal problems and allergies. Vets (and medical doctors) too often recommend antibiotics because they don’t know what else to do and feel they should do something.  Insist on a good evidence-based reason for giving any antibiotic. 

If you’re having an emergency, read about CPR or scroll down to Treatment.

Pet CPR:  If your dog isn’t breathing, you’ll need to take action fast.  Here’s an instructional video on pet CPR  .  Also see these written instructions  which you can print out. 

Non-immediate reactions:  If your dog has developed any unexplained health or behavioral problem within 45 to 60 days of vaccination, or even longer, it may be a reaction to the shot.  If you suspect the problem may be connected to a vaccine, you’ll likely have to convince your vet. It’s common to hear “it couldn’t be the shot” or “a reaction like that isn’t possible” — even when the reaction is a common one. 

Many primary vets believe vaccine reactions to be rare, in large part because severe cases go to emergency clinics, not back to the primary vet.  The World Small Animal Veterinary Association, WSAVA  (p. 55), says: “It is generally only the adverse reactions that occur within the first few hours to a day after vaccination that are considered vaccine-associated by most veterinarians or owners. Even when the adverse reaction occurs shortly after vaccination there are many who fail to recognize that the vaccine caused the reaction. Certain adverse vaccine reactions are not observed until days, weeks or even months and years after vaccination or revaccination. The autoimmune disorders and the injection site sarcomas, which are among the rare vaccine adverse reactions, may not develop for years after being triggered by vaccines.” 

Even the drug’s manufacturer (to whom you should immediately report the reaction) may deny the connection. (Admitting it may cost them money.)  If your dog got a rabies vaccination plus another vaccine of any kind, make sure you know where on the body the different shots were given and the name and serial number of each shot. This is especially important if your dog got a rabies shot.

Insist on seeing every product’s package insert. Get it from your vet or call the manufacturer and ask if it’s viewable on-line. (It probably is, but they won’t admit it. Note: the Material Safety Data  Sheet, or MSDA, is not the same thing.) Also know that long-term reactions aren’t usually documented or even studied. So persevere! A suspected vaccine reaction, especially one supported by your vet, may entitle you to compensation for medical expenses from the drug manufacturer.  

Which dogs are most likely to have reactions?  Small and medium-sized dogs are the most likely, especially when given more than one vaccine at a time. (DALPPC, a common “combo shot,” contains SIX vaccines! If your vet gives rabies or Bordetella at the same time, that’s EIGHT!)  For more about this, read  my article  about a study published in the American Veterinary Medical Association Journal showing the connection between multiple vaccines and reactions. (Give your vet a copy.) Note: multiple vaccines also make it difficult to figure out which vaccine caused the reaction. Just one of countless good reasons not to allow them!  (Wait at least three weeks between shots and pesticides like heartworm meds.)

Dogs vaccinated when they are not healthy, dogs with previous adverse reactions to vaccines and dogs vaccinated within three weeks of a previous vaccination are also more likely to react adversely. Read this article on Protecting Dogs from Vaccine Reactions to find other ways you or your vet may have put your dog at risk.    

How prevalent are reactions?   The USDA/CVB 2008 Report states that “Rabies vaccines are the most common group of biological products identified in adverse event reports received by the CVB.”  In 2007, 6500 reactions were reported for the canine rabies vaccine alone.  Unfortunately, former FDA commissioner David Kessler estimated that only 1% of all drug reactions are ever reported (even for human reactions). Thus, approximately 650,000 rabies vaccine reactions likely occurred.  Add to that more than a dozen other vaccines also causing reactions. Worse yet, long-term reactions are seldom even recognized let alone reported. 

What reactions are commonly seen?   Common rabies vaccine reactions, followed by the percentage of reactions reported to the USDA (many of which are also reactions to other vaccines): Vomiting-28.1%; facial swelling-26.3%; injection site swelling or lump-19.4%; lethargy-12%; urticaria(hives)-10.1%; circulatory shock-8.3%; injection site pain-7.4%; pruritus-7.4%; injection site alopecia or hair loss-6.9%; death-5.5%; lack of consciousness-5.5; diarrhea-4.6%; hypersensitivity (not specified)-4.6%; fever-4.1%;, anaphylaxis-2.8%; ataxia-2.8%; lameness-2.8%; general signs of pain-2.3%; hyperactivity-2.3%; injection site scab or crust-2.3%;, muscle tremor-2.3%; tachycardia-2.3%; and thrombocytopenia-2.3%.  (Oddly, they don’t list seizures which may occur after rabies vaccination. Click here for more on seizures .) 

Other reactions considered “possibly related to vaccination” included acute hypersensitivity (59%); local reactions (27%); systemic reactions, which refers to short-term lethargy, fever, general pain, anorexia, or behavioral changes, with or without gastrointestinal disturbances starting within 3 days after vaccination (9%); autoimmune disorders (3%); and other (2%).   

Also see the chart on page 54 of the WSAVA Vaccination Guidelines  (which lists seizures.) 

What to Do If You Suspect Your Dog is Having a Vaccine Reaction

1.  Get treatment! 

In emergencies: Most dogs will get emergency treatment from a conventional vet — often from an emergency facility veterinarian you don’t know.  The vet will likely administer steroids and an antihistamine.  These are the conventional treatments of choice.  Most important at this point is to save your dog’s life.  Note: Unless there is a good evidence-based reason for your dog to get antibiotics, consider whether or not this is a wise course of action. 

If you have a relationship with a holistic vet and can get immediate treatment, you will probably be offered homeopathy and/or acupuncture — which unlike steroids and antihistamines have no harmful side effects.

Non emergencies and long-term treatment: If possible, find a vet trained in homeopathy to treat your dog — to “clear” the bad effects of the vaccine rather than just suppress symptoms. See these vet referral lists  If you can’t find a good vet, or can’t afford one, contact me for other experts you can contact.  The rabies vaccine alone can cause blood disease, autoimmune disease and more. Find a list of rabies vaccine reactions here

Watch your dog carefully for new or worsened symptoms. Report all changes to your vet.  If the symptoms are visual, take photograph or videotape what is happened. 

2. Document everything!  Make sure all vets treating your dog record any reaction in detail (even a mild one) in your dog’s file. Ask the vet to sign the notation about the reaction. Vets retire, move and lose files. Keep a copy of the file in a safe place along with any photos or video.

If the reaction was to the rabies vaccine, you’ll want to ask your vet to apply for a medical exemption when the shot is due again.  Ask the vet to write a letter now to use later. If the reaction is to any other vaccine, you may want to get an exemption from groomers and boarders who require  other vaccines — most if not all of which are unnecessary.  (Please read our page on vaccinating before you give another shot of any kind.  And check your state’s rabies law and also your local Animal Control to see if local exemption options differ.) 

3. Call the vaccine manufacturer.  Get the vaccine brand, serial number and lot number from the vet who administered the vaccine to report to the manufacturer (who in turn is legally required to report the reaction to the USDA).  Ask your vet to report the reaction but don’t expect that he or she will. The 2006 American Hospital Association Canine Vaccine Task Force Report  pleads with vets, page after page, to report reactions — because they seldom do. Vets either don’t link the health or behavior problem to the vaccine … or they can’t be bothered.  Thus, reactions go unrecognized and reported, and dangerous vaccines stay on the market.  

If the vaccine can be proven to be at fault, you may be able to recover your expenses from the manufacturer. Reporting is in your best interests.

If, tragically, your dog dies or has to be put down, ask the manufacturer if they’ll pay for a necropsy (autopsy). If they won’t pay, but it’s pretty clear that the vaccine caused the dog’s death, you might want to pay for it yourself (if you can) and then go after the manufacturer for reimbursement. This is especially important with injection-site tumors.

4. Report the Reaction to the USDA  Go to the USDA animal vaccine reaction reporting page  to view information on reporting adverse events. The reporting form can be accessed from that page and submitted electronically, or it can be mailed or faxed to the Center for Veterinary Biologics. Or call the CVB at (800) 752-6255. 

Why should you bother?  The only way for the USDA to track drug reactions is by receiving reports from vets, pet owners and manufacturers. Theoretically, if enough reactions are reported, the drug can be recalled. 

5. Report your vet.

If your vet didn’t advise you before vaccination about possible reactions, or let you know if the vaccine was even necessary, file a report with your state veterinary medical association.  Find the medical board by doing a web search of terms like [your state's name] and “Veterinary Medical Board” or “Veterinary Medical Examiners.” In some states, they’ll tell you if your vet has a history of negligence. In others, they won’t tell you anything. Filing a report can result in no action being taken, so be prepared to be disappointed. But do it anyway. Multiple complaints can make a difference.

Wait until you’ve gotten everything you need from your vet before filing the complaint. Also, fire that vet and tell him or her why.  Click here to find a list of vets with holistic and/or homeopathic experience to treat your dog in the future.

6. Take More Action.  If your vet’s behavior was particularly negligent and harmful, especially if the vet is with a large corporate practice, consider contacting your state’s Attorney General and/or a local television consumer reporter and/or the Better Business Bureau. Laws are changing because consumers have taken action.

7.  Stop vaccinating unnecessarily. Your vet should have told you before vaccinating that parvovirus (one “P” in DALPPC) lasts 9 years to a lifetime; the same with distemper (D). The L, leptospirosis, shouldn’t be given to a small dog unless there’s an epidemic. C, Coronavirus, is for a very mild, rare disease of very young puppies. It’s often called a vaccine looking for a disease.  A is for adenovirus 2, a disease virtually unknown in North America. Read more about your vet’s duties to get your informed consent

Additional articles of interest: Vaccinating Dogs: 10 Steps to Eliminating Unnecessary Shots  and see how long vaccines give immunity  here under Point #6. 
Rabies Vaccination: 13 Ways to Vaccinate More Safely
Vaccinating Small Dogs: Risks Vets Aren’t Revealing
Protecting Dogs From Vaccine Reactions

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Get Our Vaccination DVD: W. Jean Dodds, DVM and Ronald D. Schultz, PhD spoke at our Safer Pet Vaccination Benefit Seminar in March. A DVD of the event is available. Buy it at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/New%20Shopping%20Cart/Check%20out%20page.htm Or learn more about it at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/saferpet . Learn more about rabies vaccination at www.truth4dogs.org and about vaccination in general at http://www.dogs4dogs.com/shots and at http:// www.truth4dogs.com .  

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