The right vaccination plan can keep your cat or dog safe and healthy.

By Cassie Kreitner

Vaccinations are vital for protecting your pet. If administered properly, they have about a 95% success rate for preventing infectious and often-fatal diseases. Dogs and cats typically get their first shots when they're 6 to 8 weeks old. Annual boosters are no longer the norm; most vets now wait three years between rounds. Vaccines are divided into two categories: core, which are recommended or required for most pets in a particular region, and non-core, ones tailored to your pet's specific needs and risks. "An animal who regularly visits a dog park, boarding facility or day care will need more vaccines than a pet who's a homebody," says Kimberly May, D.V.M., staff vet for the American Veterinary Medical Association. "Discuss your pet's lifestyle, environment, travel and medical history with your vet and map out a treatment plan." Here's what you need to know if you're getting a cat or dog, or updating your pet's vaccination schedule.

Preventive Care

If you recently adopted a pet and are unsure of his vaccination history or want to confirm you aren't prematurely vaccinating him, ask your vet about titer tests. These blood drawings measure a pet's antibodies to certain diseases.

Watch Dog

Pets, like people, may experience adverse reactions to shots. Mild side effects like swelling at the injection site, loss of appetite, sluggishness and a slight fever for a day or two are common. Severe symptoms, such as the ones listed below, could be a sign of anaphylactic shock, and you should return to the vet immediately.

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Intense itching
  • Hives
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Sudden collapse

Since more serious allergic reactions happen soon after an injection, don't leave your pet alone for at least three hours, says Frances Vaujin, D.V.M., medical director at Luv My Pet, a nationwide pet vaccination clinic. As an extra precaution she urges pet owners to follow the "10 & 10" rule: if your cat or dog is less than 10 pounds and older than 10 years, divide vaccinations among multiple visits over a 2- to 3-week period—usually you can do this at no additional cost.

For the Record

Core vaccines prevent against...

Canine Distemper (dogs): This is the most important puppy vaccine; prevents a fast-moving viral disease that affects the nervous system.

Rhinotracheitis (Feline Herpesvirus) (cats): Provides immunity against pneumonia and the most common cat influenza.

Calicivirus (cats): Without this vaccine, there's no treatment for the upper-respiratory disease; infected cats are permanent carriers.

Adenovirus Type 2 (dogs): Wards off pneumonia and canine hepatitis, a liver infection unrelated to the human illness.

Parvovirus (dogs): Protects pups from a viral intestinal attack that requires hospitalization and has a low survival rate.

Panleukopenia (Feline Distemper) (cats): Guards against a highly contagious upper-respiratory virus, which is often fatal.

Non-core vaccines protect against...

Bordetella (dogs and cats): Pets who spend time with other animals in close quarters should get what's commonly referred to as the kennel cough vaccine, to prevent pneumonia.

Lyme Disease (dogs and cats): Dogs in the northeast (particularly new England) should get this shot if they're often outdoors.

Rabies (dogs and cats): Most states mandate a triennial vaccine after the initial one-year booster for both cats and dogs, and require owners to keep proof of vaccination.

FC Tip

Remember to schedule an annual wellness exam for your dog or cat.

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.