Vaccination protocols for sled dogs

The goal of vaccination is to safely prevent infectious diseases that have potential to sicken or kill your dogs and prevent the spread of these diseases to other animals.

There are some basic things to bear in mind:  An appropriate schedule for you dogs is highly dependent on where you live, where you travel with your dogs and the races in which you intend to participate.   Get familiar in the off-season with required vaccination, timing and documentation you need to enter your planned races.  More importantly, talk to your veterinarian about what diseases are a concern where you live, and also where you intend to travel.  Some diseases like Lyme disease, Leptospirosis or Canine Influenza are more localized and may not be part of your core vaccination protocol.

Also very important:  do not get sloppy or careless with storage, mixing instructions, proper administration or properly timing your boosters as needed.  At best you are wasting your money, and at worst you are leaving dogs vulnerable to illness.  Vaccine that has been allowed to freeze, get warm, is mixed and allowed to sit for very long before injection is less efficacious or useless.  Maintain a good relationship with your veterinarian and preferably use vaccines they have ordered and maintained properly, and follow reconstitution instructions carefully as needed.

I will break the discussion down into puppies and adults.


Puppies vaccinations:

Early immunity comes from the colostrum they ingest and absorb in the first 24 hours of life.  This contains antibodies to any of the diseases to which the mother has immunity.  These antibodies stay in circulation and protect the pup until they eventually age out of the system; this die off typically occurs between 6 and 16 weeks.  At this time, a healthy pup’s immune system will “turn on” and start providing immunity to the pup.   This is important because, a puppy will not respond to a vaccine until its own immune system has “turned on.”  This is why typical vaccination for DA2PP —Distemper, Adenovirus type 2 (Canine Hepatitis), Parvovirus and Parainfluenza— starts at 6 weeks and is given every 3 to 4 weeks, with the last vaccine given at or after 16 weeks.  Cornell has been recommending a final booster at 20 weeks, the reasoning being that well vaccinated dams may impart excellent immunity to their pups and that the immune system may not “turn on” on until after 16 weeks in some of these pups.  It also explains why some pups will contract parvovirus even on a proper schedule:  If they are exposed during the gap when maternal antibody is too weak to protect them, and before they have had time to build their own immunity after vaccination, they can still contract the virus.


Parvovirus is by far the most common imminent threat to pups, and still darkens the doorway of my office every week.  It is a virus that can survive on surfaces for months and is carried by things like birds and flies. If your properly vaccinated pups come into contact with it during the immunity gap, they will be at risk.  There is one company that claims it’s vaccine can stimulate an immune response to parvovirus even in the face of maternal antibody; however, the data, which is over 25 years old, has never been published in a peer reviewed journal and can only be obtained from the company.   Distemper, equally deadly, still crops up from time to time, and was circulating through upstate New York when I left the area in 2012.  Canine hepatitis still occurs in wild animals and is also deadly to dogs.  Parainfluenza is not as deadly, but still commonly incorporated in core vaccines as it can cause severe respiratory disease, particularly in puppies.   


Vaccination for rabies can be administered as early as 12 weeks. The first vaccine is considered good for one year.  Booster scheduling beyond that is determined by the laws where you live; most areas require booster in three years.   Some still require annual or biennial vaccination.  This disease is zoonotic, meaning that people can catch it, with almost 100 percent fatality. This why the requirements are mandated by law, and why in most areas the vaccine is not considered valid unless administered by a licensed veterinarian.  Some races also require annual vaccination for rabies.


Adult vaccinations

It is my preference to give my adult dogs their needed vaccines when they are minimally stressed.  Stressors in sled dogs include:  heavy training (long runs, fast runs, frequent runs), travel, extreme weather (hot or cold), and ongoing illness.  With these in mind, I typically vaccinate in late summer, during a stretch of weather that isn’t terribly hot as my dogs are maintained outdoors.  Again, check with the timing necessary for races you intend to enter.

Boosters for DA2PP (Distemper, Canine Hepatitis, Parvovirus and Parainfluenza) for adults in pet dogs are typically given every three years.  Competing sled dogs are undergoing significant stress, which can dampen their immunity.  Many races require annual boosters with this concern in mind.  For my own dogs, as sprint races currently do not require it, I prefer to booster every two years for DA2PP. 


Leptospirosis:  This is a bacterial disease, spread by contact with contaminated ground, ground water, bedding or infected animals.  It can cause kidney and/or liver failure, severe illness and death.  There are now over 250 known serovars, 10 of which are considered of importance in dogs.  Vaccine is available for two to four of the most threatening serovars.   Leptospirosis vaccine can also be found as a component of DA2PP (DA2PP-L) vaccines.  Bear in mind if you are vaccinating for leptospirosis that the initial vaccine must be boosted (usually in four weeks), for immunity to last one year.  Annual vaccination is needed after this, and there is some question as to whether immunity persists for a full year.  This is why some prefer not to use the combination vaccine, as not following this protocol provides no longterm protection for leptospirosis.


Bordetella:  Bordetella, while not typically a fatal disease, is rapidly spread among canines in large groups, earning it the nickname “Kennel Cough.”  Bear in mind there are multiple other contagious respiratory infections for which there is no vaccine that can do the same thing.  It is extremely common to have outbreaks of respiratory disease at sled dog race, so prevention is a good idea, even when not required.  Your dogs will certainly be affected in terms of racing and training if they are infected.  There are oral, intranasal, and injectable vaccine available, some of which also booster for parainfluenza.  The duration of immunity is listed as one year when properly boosted.  The oral and intranasal forms typically don’t require a booster in one month.  The injectable one does.  I give my dogs too young for competition the injectable followed by a booster.  For my adult competing dogs, my preference is to give the intranasal vaccine and then a booster with the injectable vaccine in late fall during a lull in training, as I think immunity gets rather weak as the months go by.


Lyme disease:  It’s very important to talk with your veterinarian about risk for Lyme disease and the need for vaccination.  I am lucky to live in any area without it; when I lived in an affected area, we had begun using the vaccines that are based on recombinant technology, and felt that it provided good protection to our patients.  That said, there is still some controversy as to the efficacy of these vaccine, so there are a lot of varied opinions on this.


Canine influenza:  There are two strains of canine influenza, H3N2 and H3N8. These are highly contagious respiratory infections that have produced severe illness and even death. They are endemic in some areas, and vaccination is recommended if you are one of these locales —again, talking to your vet is critical.  To my knowledge they have not yet appeared at a sled dog race and I have not yet heard of a race that mandates vaccination for this disease.


Coronavirus:  This is a virus that affects a very specific cell in the intestine and is generally considered a bigger threat to pups rather than adults.  Vaccination is available in combination with the DA2PP or separately. I am aware of at least one race, the Pedigree Stage Stop, that requires proof of vaccination.  For my own dogs, I do not vaccinate for it, but some veterinarians vaccinate young pups only and some include it in their core boosters.


Vaccine reactions

There is always some risk of an adverse reaction to a vaccine.  These cannot be predicted.  The choice to vaccinate is one of risk management, that the risk of exposure and illness from not vaccinating is far greater than the risk of an adverse reaction.  In any given population there will always be a few individuals that experience this.  Sometimes vaccines can produce transient soreness at the vaccine site or mild fever.  These are usually self-limiting and not cause for concern.  Acute hypersensitivity reactions, with hives, swelling of the eyelids or lips, can require veterinary attention.  Fortunately, anaphylaxis, a life threatening reaction is quite rare, but it can happen.  Onset is typically rapid, less than 15 minutes post-vaccine.  Respiratory distress, weakness/collapse, vomiting, diarrhea and/or rapid pulse may be seen. Without immediate veterinary care death is likely.  All sorts of other diseases have been blamed on vaccination, some with data and the subsequent alteration of vaccine formulation or discontinuation.  Others have no evidence but are widely and loudly touted by those who oppose vaccination for various reasons. Personally, I’ve gotten very tired of watching dogs sicken and die from preventable diseases, which I see far, far more in practice than even mild adverse reactions, let alone severe ones.  


About the author: Dawn Brown DVM started sled dog racing in the junior classes in 1982 while handling for Pat Quinn's kennel of racing Siberian Huskies. She spent a total of eight years handling for Pat and later another four years for the research sled dog team at Cornell University while she was a vet student. She graduated in 1995 and finally started her own kennel. Since then she has driven all over the United States and Canada racing in 6, 8 and 10-dog sprint events. After multiple road trips from NY to race in Alaska, she moved there permanently in 2012 and now enjoys beautiful trails from her back yard in Salcha, Alaska, and competitive races within a few hours drive instead of a few days. She is a multiple ISDRA medalist, and currently holds multiple track records in Alaska and the Lower 48 states. She is the secretary of the Alaska Dog Mushers Association and Director at Large for the International Sled Dog Racing Association.  She is the Chair of the Veterinary Committee for the ADMA and the Head Veterinarian for the Open North American Championship. She has provided veterinary care at numerous sprint racing events in the Lower 48 states and Alaska.  She practices small animal medicine and surgery in North Pole, Alaska.


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