Melissa Zebley
Vaccinations for and against

Jon Weir wrote:
> My little girl is growing up quickly, and that means shots and all
> sorts of vet visits. My question is this...what are some of your
> expirences with Berners and rabies shots. I have been warned that
> Berners can sometimes have reactions to rabies shots and I should
> wait until she is 6 months old for her rabies shot. My vet says I
> should go ahead and give Elsie her shot now. My primary concern is
> her health, so I would like to get some insight from others,
> specifically any published articles and such.

There are a lot of people that have more berner experience and more years in the breed than I do, and may disagree with me, but this is my experience and opinion. I too have heard that berners are more sensitive to rabies vaccines (and other vaccines, and anesthesia, and different medications, and... well, you get the picture).

The fact is that ANY individual dog may have an adverse and unexpected reaction to just about anything. The chances that that individual dog will have a reaction are usually pretty small. Course, it doesn't really matter if it's one in a billion when that one is your dog! Since I've been pretty quiet on the list recently, I'll give a little background on my berner experience - I've been a berner fan (more accurately - berner fanatic) since about 91 or 92. I got my first berner in 1993 and have had berners ever since then - we are now on our 4th berner (yep for thus who know me and are keeping track, we got a puppy this winter). Total actual "berner years" - about 20.5 years. That's a lot of rabies vaccines. Those 4 berners represent 4 different, unrelated (as much as any berner is unrelated nowadays) bloodlines from 4 different breeders. I also have a good number of berners in my practice, including doing much of the routine vet work for a berner breeder

Not counting my own dogs, I've done rabies vaccinations on at least 20 other berners, and probably more than that (those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head). With all of that, I have never seen a berner have a reaction to rabies. Actually, I see very few reactions with any of the dogs and cats I vaccinate for rabies. And I do discuss possible signs of reaction with my clients and advise them to monitor their pets and contact me if they see any of those signs - even if they don't need treatment this time, as we may want to adjust what we do next time. However, as I said, any dog could have a reaction. The 2 best predictions of whether they will is whether they have in the past, and whether a relative has. So, the best thing to do is ask your breeder if her lines have problems, and if any related dogs have ever had a reaction. Look for specifics - not the vague "this breed has problems".

The other very important thing to find out, and probably even more important than a history of reactions, is what is the law where you live. Here in NC, all dogs MUST have their rabies vaccination by the time they are 16 weeks (4 months) old. If you get caught without that vaccine, best case scenario is you will get fined. Worst case is you may lose your dog. If an unvaccinated dog bites and breaks skin (even a puppy with those sharp puppy teeth), they must be quarantined for 10 days OR be euthanized and the head cut off and sent to the state lab to test for rabies. The decision is NOT necessarily left to the owner. If the dog is exposed to an animal with rabies, or suspected to have rabies, such as tangling with a skunk or raccoon, or even with a stray dog or cat, the dog must be quarantined at an approved facility for SIX months, at the owner's expense (lowest price I've ever heard ran about $1000 - and that was at $5/day at the county shelter; could easily be as much at $30/day, or more, for a large dog at a vet's office, if you can even find a vet who will do a long term rabies quarantine). During this time, no physical contact is allowed with the dog. If you're worrying about the risk of an adverse reaction to the rabies vaccine (of which, the vast majority of reactions are minor - I've never seen a full blown anaphylatic reaction to rabies, and have only heard of 1), then think about the damage to your puppy's behavioral development with minimal to no human contact for 6 months? And many counties will not even allow this option - the dog is simply euthanized.

Then there is the risk of rabies itself. Rabies is a very real risk in almost all areas of the country. And it's not just a run in with a stray animal - an unobserved bite by a bat can pass on rabies. A 3 month old puppy was diagnosed with rabies last year in Massachusetts, so young age is no protection. Rabies is a horrible nasty disease. It is the MOST fatal disease known to man - way more than ebola or any of the other "killer" viruses. Once you, or your pet, show symptoms, you die. Period. There is no known treatment. And it is a horrible way to go. I face large aggressive dogs on a regular basis, with nothing more than a cloth muzzle between me and mauling. I handle feral and nearly feral cats regularly, with my bare hands and a towel. Shoot, many of the local vets refer patients to me that THEY don't want to handle. I've even worked with tigers, hands on. Very little scares or deters me (except spiders, but even that I can get past when I have to ). Rabies, however, scares the living daylights out of me. It's a risk I have to run in my line of work, though I minimize it as much as I can. Anyone who takes that risk by not keeping their pets well protected against rabies, without an extremely good reason, is a fool by my book!

Sorry, that's my soapbox lecture for the day. Rabies is an extremely lethal disease, but one that is also highly preventable. While no vaccine is 100% preventable, the rabies vaccine comes the closest of any. And while no vaccine is 100% safe, most, including rabies, ARE very safe. It basically boils down to comparing risks. This is true with any vaccine, medication or treatment. What is the risk of vaccinating - yes adverse reactions happen, but they are rare and almost always minor. What is the risk of disease - DEATH! Not just to your dog, but also a risk to any one that comes in contact with the dog. Many of the "routine" vaccines we use nowadays can be skipped by an individual animal (but ONLY because the risk of disease has been so reduced by "herd immunity" because of how many animals ARE vaccinated; not because we've eliminated the disease - like smallpox). Rabies does NOT fall into this category.

So, Jon, you've probably already guessed my advice. If your girl is old enough, get her vaccinated! My puppy was vaccinated for rabies at 15 weeks of age (so, you see I do compromise in that I like my puppies and kittens a little older than the "12 weeks" that they CAN be vaccinated at). Most of my clients' puppies and kittens are vaccinated between 14 and 16 weeks of age.

For more information on rabies, its prevention and control, you can check out the Compendium of Rabies Prevention and Control for 2003: