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Featuring Demian Dressler, DVM and Sue Ettinger, DVM, Dip. ACVIM (Oncology), authors of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide

Vaccination and Dog Cancer

Updated: April 13th, 2021

Vaccinations & Dog Cancer

Are vaccinations and dog cancer linked?

A reader recently posed a question about vaccinations and links with cancer in dogs.

I discussed this in more detail in the Guide, along with many other factors that may (or may not) have links to cancer.  But, since it came up, I thought it might make a good post.

If reader is looking for a vilification of vaccines, a carte-blanche condemnation of the practice of vaccination, a hysterical, reactive, anti-ist, myopic tirade against vaccines in general, you may want to stop reading.  This is not the proper forum for that type of thing so common in certain circles these days.

Okay, with that out of the way, let’s look at the situation like rationale, clear thinking human beings.  The situation is not clear cut, and that recognition should be established early.

For those who want the bottom line now: No vaccinations for dogs with cancer. None. Vaccinations have complex interactions with the immune system and these are not predictable and can be harmful in dogs with cancer.  Use the minimum vaccinations for your pet’s lifestyle, needs, and other health issues.

But don’t eliminate all vaccinations in healthy pets. From the viewpoint of someone who deals with diseases that vaccines prevent, I can promise you that if your dog were to experience parvo or distemper, you would wish she had been protected…but only after the fact, after you had endured the pain of witnessing the horror show of these problems in your loved dog.

And of course vaccinations have side effects, like anything (yes, even homeopathy), and these must be contended with.

Like any medical intervention, we have to analyze whether the costs outweigh the benefits.  With vaccination, I’ve stated the benefit already: prevention of diseases that your dog may contract if they are present. This means, of course, that if there is no Lyme disease where your dog walks, no ticks to spread the bacteria, don’t vaccinate against Lyme disease. I give very little kennel cough vaccine to adult dogs because there is very little kennel cough where I practice. I don’t vaccinate my patients against rabies as we have a rabies-free state. I don’t vaccinate against leptospirosis in any puppy, Dachschund, Poodle, or dogs that are not always going in fresh water, where it is carried.

Yet, we have parvo outbreaks. And friends, parvo can kill a dog just like cancer. I quote clients about a 70-80% survival rate with 24-hour intensive care but we treat the disease very aggressively and use many different tools to do so.  I suspect overall survival rates for parvo are lower than that. And friends, if your dog’s intestine is bleeding out and he is lying on the ground with low blood sugar, destroyed electrolytes, and vomiting but can barely lift his head to do so..suddenly…preventing parvo doesn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.

But what about the negatives of vaccination?  Well, these are not quite as well documented in the conventional literature. This means that you cannot find all that much on direct links between vaccines and diseases or problems resulting from them in the dog. However, there are some pretty compelling bits of information from human medicine that we can apply to dogs.  This is especially true as dogs are models for human cancers, and we vets use many of the same tests, drugs, and other treatments that are provide to humans.

Alternative vets describe something called vaccinosis, which means the vaccine negatives, more or less. An “-osis”, similar to a disease.  These effects could include, for example, allergic reactions. (Then again apples make my lips swell and I still think apples are okay for other people…but I digress..) So a vaccination can cause an allergic reaction, but they are pretty rare, and can most often be managed in a strait-forward way.

Vaccines are now being more or less accepted as increasing the risk for immune system problems, especially involving the blood.  These problems include cases where the immune system starts to attack blood cells, like red or white blood cells, or platelets. For this reason, in dogs that already have a predisposition towards those diseases (Poodles for example, or dogs with clinical inflammatory disorders of any kind), I don’t vaccinate or do so much less, or with precautionary steps.

In cats, there is actually a tumor specifically caused by vaccinations, called a vaccine-induced sarcoma, or “vaccosarcoma”. This is not found though in dogs.

Now comes the murkier stuff that is not very well documented, but is suspicious and raises flags in my mind. First, the immune system has traditionally been thought of as if it had unlimited ability to to respond to things. In reality it does not. Vaccination of newborn babies creates what is called a polarity shift in the immune response. This means the immune system shifts to defend itself against the diseases in the vaccine, as a response to the vaccination. Here is a publication in humans, and here is one in mice, and here’s a related one in mice as well.

This polarity shift pulls the immune system away from cancer surveillance later in life (shown in rodents anyway), and appears to be a permanent change.  In other words, the immune system is  primed to fight infectious disease, but at the expense of protecting or screening the body from developing cancer cells.

Now, this has not been shown in dogs, but it has been in other species. And I strongly suspect that the same effects occur in dogs.  And who knows what other items we don’t know about. Who knows about the heavy metals or preservatives and whatnot in vaccines, whether in dogs there really is a connection to other forms of immune mediated disease (I suspect so), or certain neurologic or other problems.

In my practice therefore, I start the vaccine series a little later than normal to try to minimize this possible polarity shift. I cannot prove it works, but because there is compelling evidence of this phenomenon, I do what I can to include these ideas in daily medicine. We also only vaccinate with core vaccines at 1 and 4 years, then only possibly later if needed.  We test for protection using what is called a titer test, which is a crude way of assessing protection in a dog at a point in time….to see if a vaccination is needed, before just administering it.  We try to minimize other vaccines as much as possible.  When the dog does not get the vaccine, they get a titer test to make sure they have left over protection from previous vaccinations.

Some guardians like to give Thuja occidentalis, a homeopathic that seems to help a little with “vaccinosis”.  I kind of like Thuja. Data? Nope.

So, those are some of my thoughts concerning vaccinations in dogs. I hope this helped clarify this rather complicated issue.

For more information about topics like this and their connection to cancer, read the Guide.


Dr D

Leave a Comment

  1. Janice Lewis on November 3, 2022 at 1:52 am

    My 12 yr old dog was vaccinated in order to meet requirements for boarding. He has had seizures for 10 months, controlled with keppra. All tests for the cause were done, and there was no reason found for the seizures, except for a brain scan. He has had cancerous tumors removed 3 times over his life. He was fully functional, active and happy. A week after the vaccinations he went onto cluster seizures and after 16 hours we had to euthanize him as they could not stabilize him. I did research and came to the conclusion he should not have been vaccinated given his condition. I am horrified that he went through that, which could have been prevented.

  2. Paige on June 1, 2021 at 11:09 am

    I see you advise against the leptospirosis vaccine for puppies and poodles. Is that true in all cases? I have a toy poodle puppy and the vet is telling us that leptospirosis is a great risk in NYC and that he should be vaccinated now. What would you do?

    • Molly Jacobson on June 1, 2021 at 1:32 pm

      Hi Paige! I think you didn’t catch Dr. Dressler’s exact point. He vaccinates according to actual risk. He used leptosporosis as an example. There is very little fresh water in Maui, so he writes “I don’t vaccinate against leptospirosis in any puppy, Dachschund, Poodle, or dogs that are not always going in fresh water, where it is carried.”

      If your vet is telling you that your area is high risk for lepto, then I would trust their judgment 🙂

      The point Dr. D is making is that you shouldn’t give unnecessary vaccines. We have no rabies in Hawaii, so most of us do not vaccinate for it. But if we travel with our dog to the mainland, we do.

      I hope that helps to clarify!

  3. Deanna on April 22, 2021 at 11:54 am

    So if I want to take my dog to the groomer I need rabies proof. If you don’t vaccinate foe rabies, how do any dogs get groomed or go to boarding places?
    I live in San Diego and guess that I will have to do all the grooming!
    How coming is rabies in San Diego?

    • Molly Jacobson on April 22, 2021 at 3:03 pm

      Depends upon the state, but some allow you to skip with a letter from your veterinarian. Check with your vet.

    • Katie on November 13, 2023 at 6:51 pm

      My dog of 11 years has tcc of the bladder. Oncologist told me to only get rabies vaccine for yearly vaccinations. We have done a surgery, chemo and radiation on my dog. I called the vet twice and told the clinic that he can only have the rabies vaccine. The vet still gave bordetella and lepto vaccine. He admitted he did not read the dogs chart even though my dog has been coming to them since he was an a puppy and has been seen by the vet multiple times since the cancer diagnosis. The vet said they “messed up.” What steps should I take? I’m so worried my dog is going to get sicker.

  4. TC on April 13, 2021 at 1:14 pm

    Great article. Have a six year old boxer in perfect health. At 3 yrs had a kidney removed due to a nephroblastoma, neoplasm. They said without radiation treatment he would live a couple of months. I chose not to do radiation treatments. But prayer, a healthy diet, exercise and no shots have given me a blessed 3 years….Had a titer done and my vet says he needs a Parvo shot. This vaccine has three cancer causing agents in it…especially mercury. I really don’t want him to have it. What do you think? He never goes to dog parks, or runs around with other dogs…only thing is he goes to the vets office . But not very often.

  5. Mary Hammond on March 12, 2020 at 2:19 am

    My nine year old Min Pin received her 3 year babies booster and had her first ever reaction of a swollen face and had to be taken to our nearest emergency clinic. She left the clinic and in two days her face was back to normal. But within two weeks she had developed a growth on her vulva. I took her to her vet where they said it didn’t look very nice. We did a biopsy and were told it was cancer and that she needed surgery. I took her for a second opinion. The second vet agreed with the cancer and we slated Chevy for surgery in ten days. I the mean time I was giving a drug regiment to keep the cancer from growing until surgery. All was going well the cancer on her vulva seemed to be stable. Then I noticed a pee size lump where her lymph node would be. In just two days time that seem lump was the size of a tootsie roll the long ones. I got her to the vet where the decision was made to let Chevy go to heaven. Chevy was a perfectly healthy dog up until that rabies shot and reaction. I can’t help but sit here thinking that my dog died because of this rabies shot and I most likely will never now. Add this to wherever they’re keeping statistical records.

  6. Gaye on February 9, 2018 at 5:01 am

    My little westie contracted Parvo. I gave him the homeopathic nosode Parvo and a remedy called Arsenicum album followed a few days later with Nux Vomica Hommaccord. I also used activated charcoal as well as pedilyte a paediatric electrolyte. I have had his titres done and he continues to have good immunity.

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