Pet Vaccines Explained

As a veterinary technician I learned to abbreviate a lot of things.  Like any other industry, veterinary medicine has it’s own language.  And an alphabet of acronyms for all the things handled in a veterinary hospital.

Vaccines are one of the most basic things you can do for your pet. Each letter in the alphabet abbreviation stands for a disease.  At the most basic level, a vaccine is given,  whether in a pet or a human,  to produce immunity by stimulating the immune system to produce antibodies.  Antibodies are the proteins that fight off infections, bacteria or other foreign substances.  Some of the most common diseases can almost be eliminated as a threat when pets are vaccinated….but too many unvaccinated pets without immunity in any given area (like your neighborhood) can get sick quickly when a disease is then brought in by an outside animal.  When your pet is then exposed to a disease, their immune system recognizes the disease and uses the immunity produced to prevent illness.

Occasionally a new disease comes along where no pets have any immunity, and many, many become ill.  Such was the case we saw in the early 1980’s when parvo suddenly started killing pets, most especially the old and the very young.


DHLPP  stands for:

Distemper – is a virus that attacks the respiratory system, the intestinal system, and then the nervous system. It can be spread in the air as well as dog to dog by nasal discharge. it is often fatal, especially in puppies.

Hepatitis – also a virus that is spread by body fluids. It can be fatal.

Leptospirosis – causes a fever, vomiting, and diarrhea, and can be spread to humans.

Parainfluenza – while not usually fatal, it causes respiratory coughing and breathing problems.  So it’s a standard thing to vaccinated against.

Parvo – a highly contagious intestinal virus, often deadly in the young, old and dogs with compromised immune systems. It is spread via feces/diarrhea.  The diarrhea has a horrible odor.  A vaccine was developed in the 1980’s when this disease  discovered.

For many years this combination vaccine was given yearly.  Over the last decade or so views have changed and now some veterinarians may recommend giving it every couple years.  Like any vaccine, once given several times your pet will develop good immunity to these diseases that may last for several years without a booster.  Follow your veterinarians guidance.

Rabies – see below

Other vaccines may be recommended for your dog, including

  • Lyme disease – which is transmitted through ticks, and can cause painful swollen joints, and left untreated, long term joint damage and neurological issues
  • Bordetella – “Kennel cough” – a non-fatal respiratory infection that causes coughing and hacking.  It is self limiting and will get better on it’s own given enough time.  Antibiotics may help prevent secondary respiratory infections along with it.


FVRCP is the cat equivalent of the DHLPP for dogs – a typically annual vaccine that protects against:

Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis  (herpes in cats), Calicivirus, Panleukopenia (feline distemper) Rhinotracheitis and calici are upper respiratory viruses, and Panleukopenia acts in cats much like distemper in dogs (hence it can be called distemper in cats).

Other vaccines that might be beneficial for your cat are: feline leukemia virus (FeLV), Chlamydophila felis, bordetella, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), and feline infectious peritonitis (FIP).

As with dogs, certain additional vaccines  to FVRCP may be indicated for your cat, depending on the lifestyle.  Outdoor cats greatly benefit from being vaccinated against FeLV.  Your veterinarian will decide how frequently the FVRCP should be given.

for both dogs and cats:

Rabies – is considered to be a core (necessary) vaccines; nearly all states require dogs (and in some cats) to be vaccinated against rabies.  Rabies is shed through saliva, and only in the last few days of life.  It is nearly always fatal.  Rabies is fairly common in the USA in wildlife.  each state tracks the number of animals tested and how many of those were positive in a given year.  Raccoons, fox, bats and skunks are the primary species affected, but rabies can live and be transmitted by any mammal.  Every year a few dogs and cats (especially feral cats) are diagnosed and reported in the statistics.

The rabies virus is transmitted through a bite or open wound exposed to the infected saliva.  The virus travels slowly through the nervous system, to the spine and ultimately to the brain. This process can take as long as 6 months.  Once the brain is infected, rabies causes personality changes and odd behavior.  Animals may be extremely aggressive, but in some species, like cows, it is more often the “dumb”/paralytic form.

As it progresses, irritability becomes more pronounced, eating and swallowing become difficult, there is loss of coordination, paralysis, excessive salivation, and ultimately death.

Rabies is transmissible to humans, and according to the CDC, there are between 1-3 human cases of rabies per year in the USA.

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