Dog Vaccinations: Which are Absolutely Necessary, Optional or Annual?

Last Updated: April 13, 2023

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Keeping your dog healthy involves so much more than just regular exercise and a top-notch diet. While those factors unquestionably come into play, it's your job as an owner to treat your dog's health much like your own.

Just like you visit your general practitioners for checkups and regular healthcare, regular trips to the vet are a must for your dog.

Your trusted vet will do a lot to keep your pup's health in check. In addition to diagnosing potential problems and giving valuable care tips, one of the most important things to do at the vet is to get vaccinations.

Dog Vaccinations

Canine vaccinations are paramount. They help to fend off potentially fatal and contagious diseases. Vaccinations are so crucial that many municipalities have strict laws governing what your dog must get.

If dealing with dog vaccinations feels a bit overwhelming, you're not alone! Most dogs owners are vaguely familiar with what these vaccines do and how they protect canine companions. But, the sheer number of offered injections throws a ton of confusion into the mix.

Which injections are required? Are any optional? What inoculations come with an annual schedule?

Here's some information you need to know about dog vaccinations?

How Do Vaccinations Work?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let's talk about what vaccines do. These days, there's a lot of unfortunate misconceptions about injections.

The goal of using injections is to build up immunity to certain diseases. Without them, dogs would come down with all kinds of health conditions!

Dogs are living longer than ever nowadays, and vaccinations are mainly responsible for that longevity.

Every vaccine contains antigens. Without getting too scientific, antigens mimic disease-causing pathogens. They behave identically to the real stuff. The main difference? Antigens don't cause the disease.

What they do is train the immune system. The whole concept behind vaccinations is to stimulate the immune response so that your dog's body knows what to do if it encounters the real thing.

There's still a chance that diseases could take hold. But with the vaccine, the effects are much more manageable!

What Vaccines are Necessary?

Veterinarians look generally split vaccines up into two categories: Core vaccines and non-core vaccines.

The core vaccines are vital to your dog's health. They dramatically reduce the chances of disease and can even prevent the spread of pathogens to humans. Every dog needs to get a set of core vaccinations.

In most jurisdictions, at least one of these injections is required by law. Make sure to read up on your state and local laws. Your vet should be able to provide that information as well.


Here's the most critical vaccine of all. Rabies is a viral disease that attacks the brain and spinal cord. Symptoms of the disease are pretty dramatic. It can completely change a dog's personality and make them sensitive to a slew of stimulants.

Unfortunately, there's no cure for rabies. It's fatal in nearly all cases.

To make matters worse, this disease spreads through bites. Most dogs encounter rabies when they fight with wild animals.

Mammals like bats, skunks, raccoons, and more can have rabies.

Rabies is a severe disease that can also affect humans. It's fatal in humans, which is why there are so many laws regarding rabies vaccinations.

In many states, unvaccinated dogs are immediately put down after they bite a human.

Why? The only way to test for rabies is by examining the brain tissue.

The good news is that rabies is pretty much eradicated in the United States. Only a couple of cases among humans occur every year. That said, wild animals and dogs can still get it!

Of all the vaccines available, rabies is the one you should get for your dog.


The second core vaccine is for distemper. Contrary to popular belief, distemper vaccines aren't for a single disease. It's an umbrella term used to describe four different diseases. A distemper vaccination covers multiple conditions.

For this reason, you might see the vaccine labeled as DAPP, DA2PP, DHPP, or DHPPV in your pup's medical records. Those letters represent the specific conditions the vaccine addresses.

The first disease is Parvovirus. Usually referred to as simply "Parvo," it's a highly contagious virus that usually affects puppies. It spreads through direct and indirect contact with feces.

If your pup gets Parvo, they can experience extreme gastrointestinal upsets and bloody diarrhea. It can be fatal, so it's crucial to get protection.

dog at the vet ready to get vaccines

The next disease is Canine Distemper. Distemper is an airborne viral disease that attacks the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system, and the nervous system. It can lead to permanent brain damage and death.

Parainfluenza is another contagious virus that deals with the respiratory system.

Not to be confused with canine influenza, this is a unique disease that causes coughing, fever, and changes in appetite.

Finally, there's Canine Adenovirus. There are two versions of Adenovirus, and most distemper vaccines cover both.

The first type spreads through urine and feces, while the second is contagious through coughs and sneezes.

What Vaccines are Optional?

After getting the core vaccines, there's a good chance that your vet will recommend a few non-core vaccinations.

These injections are sometimes referred to as "lifestyle" injections because not every dog will need them. As you might have guessed, they cover potential diseases that only affect certain dogs in specific environments.

It's a good idea to get recommendations from your vet. Familiarize yourself with local laws and the risks in your area to determine which vaccines are suitable for your pooch.


Bordetella is a bacterial infection. When it gets in your dog's system, it wreaks havoc on the respiratory system and causes a condition known as Kennel Cough.

The vaccine can prevent upper respiratory infections caused by the Bordetella bacteria.

Dogs that regularly interact with others in a closed space should get this vaccine. If you bring your dog to daycare or house them in a kennel regularly, it's a must.

Even those who visit the dog park could benefit from the injection.

Many establishments require proof of Bordetella vaccinations before accepting your pet. For example, you'll often see it as a requirement at dog groomers, hotels, and even apartment buildings.


Leptospirosis is a bacterial disease that spreads through rodent urine. It can quickly spread to dogs and humans, so we recommend getting this vaccine if you encounter rats near your home.

Vets often recommend the Leptospirosis vaccine for dogs in urban environments where rodent issues are common. Dogs that work on farms can use it, too.

Canine Influenza

Canine influenza is a strain of dog flu. Usually, the disease is pretty mild. But, some dogs can experience severe symptoms.

The effects of influenza are similar to parainfluenza. Dogs can suffer from fevers, coughing fits, and more. The vaccine can provide protection, much like the annual flu vaccine for humans.

Related: Fast Breathing Pup? Causes & Solutions

Lyme Disease

Lyme Disease is another potentially fatal disease you want to avoid. It usually spreads through deer ticks. When infected, dogs can suffer a host of unwanted symptoms.

These include lameness, lymph node swelling, and even kidney failure.

Ticks can occur just about everywhere, but the disease is prevalent in the Northeast United States. Realistically, any wooded area can house ticks that are just waiting to latch onto your dog.

There are other ways to keep ticks off, but the Lyme Disease injection is one of the best ways to ensure that the illness doesn't take hold of your dog.

When Should Your Dog Start Getting Vaccines

Puppies should start getting vaccines at around six weeks old. That's the earliest most vets recommend.

The vaccine schedule starts with distemper and kennel cough vaccines. However, the plan continues with additional vaccines every three weeks or so until your dog reaches four months old.

Your vet will create the appropriate schedule to provide comprehensive protection while minimizing potential side effects.

It's never too late to get vaccines. So if you adopted an older unvaccinated dog, make sure to visit a vet as soon as possible!

Annual Vaccines

Now that you know which vaccines are necessary and optional, which ones need boosters?

Generally, all core and non-core vaccines protect your dog for only a year. So, annual boosters are necessary to maintain protection.

Three-year vaccines are available for rabies and distemper. With those vaccines, you'll only have to bring your dog in for annual non-core boosters.


Vaccines don't have to be as confusing as they are. Speak up, and ask your veterinarian for more information if you're still confused. Most are more than happy to go into the details to make you feel comfortable.

Don't let vaccines scare you. They're there to help keep your dog safe from entirely preventable diseases. Vaccines are an essential part of dog ownership. Familiarizing yourself with how they work and what they do can give you some peace of mind.

Also Read: Dog is Foaming at the Mouth


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About the author 


Steve is a writer with over 10 years of experience in dog training and nutritiion.

His goal is to educate dog owners about the ins and outs of canine behavior as well as keeping up with the latest scientific research in the field.