Though most people think of vaccines as safe and protective, vaccination is a serious medical procedure with significant risks. The rabies vaccine, the only pet vaccine required by law, is arguably the most dangerous inoculation given to dogs and cats -and we give it far more often than necessary to protect people and dogs. And did you know: a Chihuahua puppy gets exactly the same dose shot as an adult Great Dane? This increased antigen load in relation to body size likely exposes small dogs to even bigger health risks.

Immediate adverse reactions after vaccination are easy to spot: vomiting, facial swelling, fever, lethargy, circulatory shock, loss of consciousness and even death. Non-immediate reactions, occurring days or even months, after vaccination include:

- Fibrocarcinomas (cancer) at the injection site
- Seizures and epilepsy
- Autoimmune diseases, such as those affecting bone marrow, blood cells, joints, eyes, kidney, liver, bowel and the central nervous system
- Chronic digestive problems
- Allergies
- Skin diseases (small dogs are especially vulnerable to ischemic dermatopathy and panniculitis)
- Muscle weakness or atrophy, particularly lack of rear-end coordination
- Pica (eating inappropriate materials, including feces)
- Behavioral Problems: aggression, destruction, separation anxiety, obsessive compulsive behaviors like tail chasing or paw licking

Perhaps because it's required by law, few conventional vets warn about adverse reactions to this vaccine. For various reasons, delayed and unusual reactions are seldom reported to manufacturers or the FDA.

Given the risks...shouldn't we vaccinate only as often as necessary to protect dogs and people? Yes, but that's not what happens. Although blood antibody titer tests show that the rabies vaccine provides immunity for seven years, and a 1992 French "challenge" study proves at least five years of protection, most areas require vaccination of adult dogs every three years. Some U.S. localities require annual or biannual vaccination even though the "three year" shot is guaranteed by manufacturers to give three years of immunity. If that weren't bad enough, the three-year shot is often the one-year shot simply relabled to meet local requirements.

Can you avoid the rabies vaccine? If your dog has a well-documented history of health problems, and a low probability of contracting rabies, your veterinarian can apply for a deferral or exemption in many areas. A blood test for antibody titers (pronounced like tighter) showing strong antibodies to the disease may help your case, but will not by itself get you an exemption. Inexplicably, some vets refuse to apply for exemptions and some localities refuse to offer them. Ironically, strong titers, not repeated vaccination, are the only proof that a dog has immunity.

Incidentally, according to the CDC, rabies is no longer transmitted dog to dog in the United States. Your dog can contract rabies only from a wild animal such as a bat, fox or coyote.


Because the USDA , which oversees animal vaccines, will not accept blood tests or foreign studies as proof for vaccine duration of immunity, concerned American dog lovers have banded together to fund the research required to extend the period between vaccinations and to make the vaccine safer.

Nationally-renowned pet vaccination experts Drs. Jean Dodds and Ronald Schultz (Chair of the Department of Pathobiology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison) are volunteering their efforts to study the vaccine. The University has waived its usual overhead fee (customarily 48% of direct costs). Concurrent five- and seven-year studies, using USDA testing protocols, are currently determining the duration of vaccine protection. Phase II of these studies will investigate the safety of the shot's boosting agents (called adjuvants) and establish a much-needed reporting system for adverse shot reactions. This study offers the opportunity to improve the health of every dog in America.

Learn more about adverse reactions, vaccination exemptions, titer testing and the Rabies Challenge Fund , and watch our entertaining but informative video at our Rabies Vaccine page

Author's Bio: 

Jan Rasmusen authored Scared Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care, a comprehensive, fun-to-read book on holistic dog health and safety. Jan's book won national awards for the Best Health Care Book (of any kind) and Best Pet Care Book. Learn more about the rabies vaccine at Sign up for her popular free e-newsletter and her information-packed blogs.