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How often does my pet need a rabies vaccine?

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It seems like it should be a simple question, right? How often does your dog or cat need to be vaccinated for rabies? In some cases, it is. However, there are situations when the answer becomes more complicated.

The simple answer is either annually or every three years, depending on the vaccine used and your pets previous vaccination history. Unfortunately, not all situations are that simple. And, in some cases, particularly with dogs, the answer really has more to do with local laws than with science.

Rabies vaccination for dogs

This is the simple truth: All rabies vaccines are either one- or three-year vaccines. In fact, there is strong evidence that the vaccine may provide immunity even longer than three years, but the testing has not been done to change the labeling to reflect a duration longer than three years.

Assuming that the pet owner is responsible and never allows the pet’s vaccine to lapse, the first rabies vaccine should be boostered one year following the initial vaccine. Subsequent rabies vaccinations should be administered every three years. However, if the pet's vaccine protection has lapsed, local or state laws may require that the vaccine be re-administered one year later instead of three.

Unfortunately, there are some communities that still mandate that rabies vaccinations be administered for pets more often once every three years, even though this is based on out-dated information and is no longer scientifically necessary or even advisable. Some communities are slow to change however, leaving their veterinarians and pet owners in a difficult situation. Veterinarians, like all citizens, are obligated to follow the laws mandated by the communities in which they live and/or work.

Rabies vaccination for cats

The situation in cats is a bit more complicated. Vaccines in cats, like those for dogs, are either one- or three-year vaccines. However, sarcomas have been associated with rabies vaccination in cats, complicating the decision about giving a one- or a three-year vaccine.

Sarcomas are a rare but extremely aggressive type of cancer that have been associated with feline vaccines and other injections. Rabies vaccines have been implicated as a potential cause of these sarcomas. Some veterinarians feel that a specific rabies vaccine (the Purevax vaccine) is less likely to cause feline sarcomas and therefore is safer for use in cats. However, the downside to this is the fact that this particular vaccine (at least at the current time) is licensed for only one year and must be administered annually.

As a cat owner, you should consult with your veterinarian to determine which option is most appropriate for your cat.

Other circumstances that may require administration of a rabies vaccine

Under other specific situations, it may be required for your pet to receive a rabies vaccine sooner than expected even if his rabies vaccine is already current.

  • If your pet has been exposed to a rabid animal and is current on his rabies vaccine, your veterinarian will recommend a booster for your pet’s protection as well as the protection of the general public. Most communities have regulations in effect that mandate procedures in these circumstances.
  • If your pet has a wound of unknown origin, such as an abscess, a booster vaccination against rabies may be recommended as a precaution whether your pet is current on his rabies vaccine or not.

As you can see, the answer to how often your pet needs to be vaccinated against rabies depends on many factors. However, your pet's veterinarian should be able to review your pet's vaccination history, physical condition, and lifestyle to help you determine an appropriate vaccination schedule for your pet.

Remember that, even if you pet does not require vaccination, a physical examination with your veterinarian should still be performed at least yearly. For older pets or those with chronic illnesses, more frequent examinations may be required.

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