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Pet Vaccination Questions, Part 1: rabies vaccine timing


For some reason, I’ve been spending a lot more time lately discussing vaccination, so I figured I’d write about a series of vaccine issues, questions and dogmas (that are often non-evidence-based or just downright wrong).

First up, age for first rabies vaccine

Here, at least, rabies vaccines are licensed for use in dogs and cats that are 12 weeks of age or older. In Ontario, provincial rules require vaccination of dogs, cats and ferrets that are 12+ weeks of age. Yet, dogs and cats often receive their first rabies vaccine at 16 weeks of age (that’s what I did when I was in general practice, eons ago, before coming back to specialize).


  • Not sure. Maybe it’s one of these habits we (as a profession) have gotten into.
  • Maybe it’s because we think clients are motivated for rabies vaccination but less for other vaccines, and we want to make sure they come back for their 16+ week ‘core’ vaccine shot (more on the timing of core vaccines in another post in this series). In that event, holding rabies vaccine until the final puppy/kitten vaccine might help make sure they come back.

But at what cost?

One issue is the potential for rabies, obviously. Waiting creates a longer period of time when the animal is susceptible to rabies. What are the odds the dog/cat will get rabies because of a 1 month delay? Low, but it’s an avoidable delay.

The other issue, and in many ways the bigger issue, is the response to rabies exposure. While rabies in dogs and cats is rare here, potential rabies exposure is much more common since rabies is present in wildlife and wildlife-pet interactions are common. If a dog/cat tangles with a wild animal that’s a potential rabies reservoir and that wild animal isn’t available for testing, that could be considered exposure. If a dog/cat tangles with a rabid animal, that’s clearly exposure. The response to a dog/cat that’s potentially been exposed to rabies varies with the animal’s vaccine status.

The approach in Ontario is similar to elsewhere:

Unvaccinated (or having received its first rabies vaccine <28 days before:

  • If they get a rabies vaccine within 7 days, they get a 3 month ‘precautionary confinement period’. It’s not called ‘quarantine’ here  since that term has different legal connotations, but it’s the same thing. See the table at the bottom for details.
  • If no rabies vaccine within 7 days: 6 months precautionary confinement period

Primarily vaccinated for rabies (one dose, and not due for a 2nd yet):

  • If they get a rabies vaccine booster within 7 days: no formal confinement period, but a 45 day home observation period
  • If not boosted within 7 days: 3 month precautionary confinement period

As you can see, that’s a big difference.  A vaccinated puppy/kitten that gets a booster has a pretty easy and observation period. Strict quarantine of a puppy/kitten as is required for the precautionary confinement period is tough to do and can have major impacts on their social and behavioural development. Often, they are euthanized because people are unwilling or unable to do strict isolation. I’ve dealt with multiple situations where a puppy/kitten was exposed and unvaccinated (or too recently vaccinated) because it didn’t get vaccinated at 12 weeks. They’re horrible situations when people have to decide whether to euthanize their young pet (particularly when I know that if they’d been vaccinated at 12 weeks, we wouldn’t be having this discussion).

So, puppies and kittens should be vaccinated at 12 weeks of age, regardless of what’s happening with other vaccines.



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