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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

Discover the Full Spectrum Approach to Dog Cancer

Leave a Comment

  1. Terrie Lavelle on April 30, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    Dear Dr.D.,
    I wrote to you in the past of my dog that had oral melanoma and was diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma three months later. She has passed on. I had her on Appocaps and used EverPup supplements.
    I have continued using the supplements for my other dogs. My question is, can
    I put my 12y/o beagle on the Appocaps — he does not have cancer. I have the Appocaps left from Hope. I can’t imagine that they could do Winston any harm.
    I just wanted to be sure. Thanks.
    Also, I want to thank you for “the Guide”. It was a great reference throughout Hope’s
    Thank you so much for “The Guide” –it was a great reference

  2. Angie on April 30, 2013 at 9:15 am

    Dr. Dressler,

    What about products like Revolution for flea, tick and heartworm – is it ok to give while a dog has cancer undergoing chemo? I tried to find some advice on this in the guide but I didn’t see it.


    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 9, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      Hi Angie,
      I minimize them but if you are in a heartworm endemic area, or if there are a lot of fleas and ticks which carry blood borne parasites, then I will actually use them to avoid concurrent cancer and blood parasites, etc. I will often supplement with things like denamarin, cholodin and so on though.
      Dr D

  3. mckellygirl on April 29, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Kelsey, I am in a similar situation as you are. My golden retriever has osteosarcoma, diagnosed nearly 2 years ago. I live in Virginia, where rabies vaccinations are required every 3 years. He was due for one around the time of his diagnosis. In talking with my vet, we are just getting the rabies vaccination when needed and no other vaccinations. I also feed my dog an anti-cancer diet with a lot of immune-support supplements. I don’t think there is any other way around this.

  4. Kim Rogers on April 29, 2013 at 1:27 pm

    I have had my suspicions regarding what I consider ‘over vaccination’ of dogs for many years and the possibility of the vaccines reducing the dogs immune system to other diseases not the least of which is certain types of cancers. My beloved breed has a high disposition for Lymphoma and unfortunately after being in the breed for over 10 years (vaccinating every year as required by vets) I had my first cast of Lymphoma, since then I have had 6 diagnosed cases of Lymphoma at varying ages. I looked into everything I could to see if there was something I was doing or not doing that had put my dogs in a position to fall victim to this disease. I did a lot of research on vaccinations and titer testing and I decided to go down that line of thinking and not simply sticking a needle in my dogs every 12 months. Since starting this I appear to have much healthier dogs in many ways plus I am getting my dogs to live much longer than they were and way less incidents of Lymphoma. Coincidence? Perhaps, but what if it’s not? All I know is that it’s working for my dogs.

  5. Andrea on April 29, 2013 at 9:05 am

    Hi Dr. Dressler.
    Wow, I’m glad that I read this post. My Annie was diagnosed as having a MCT. Her surgery went great, the surgeon got plenty of skin since the skin stretches and the margins were clean and we don’t think that the lump really even metastasized. Annie is doing great, but she is due for her “annual” 3 year rabies shot soon. I’ve been having a bad feeling about this particular vaccination. The lump appeared in the same place not long after the shot was given in that same leg, in that same area. I tend to listen to my instincts, and lately, my instinct is telling me not to take her for that shot. I give her an immune supplement? I’m with Kelsey on this, how does a guardian get around that legal barrier? I’m going to find out if my state has a rabies medical waiver. Thanks for all the wonderful info that you have to give, your book has really helped me cope 🙂

  6. Jan Rasmusen on April 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

    I’m presuming you’re not advocating waiting until 1 yr of age to first vaccinate against parvo and distemper. Then you must be giving a “booster” at 1 and 4. Why? Experts advise giving ONE vaccine after 15 – 16 weeks of age, waiting 3 or 4 weeks, then testing titers. If titers show immunity, the dog is protected for at least 7 – 9 years for most viral vaccines. In fact, they are likely immune for life in approximately 95% of dogs. Vaccinating an immune dog can lead to hypersensitivity plus all the other reactions.

    The AAHA and WSAVA Guidelines prompted many vets to shift to a three-year vaccination schedule but the Guidelines say NO MORE OFTEN than 3 years — not every three years.

    Also, injection site sarcomas absolutely occur in dogs, just not as often as in cats. That’s why it’s important to know where shots are given, especially using the rabies vaccine which is recommended on the right hip/leg. Why? So the leg can be amputated if cancer develops.

  7. Layne Evans on April 29, 2013 at 3:40 am

    Dr. Dressler, I cannot thank you enough for this clear, sane overview of the issues. My dog has lymphoma and I’ve been reading all i can about it but nothing has given me the clarity (even when it’s pointing out the confusion!) that this blog has. I have your book, so I might have read it there, but now it’s sinking in, so thank you, I’m printing this out and keeping it. Also, someone asked about dealing with rabies laws, I’m working on that, too, but there is a site (rabies challenge fund) that has a list of states with exemptions, I’m going to try to get an exemption in my state. Thanks again. Dr. Dressler, I am a sincere and grateful admirer. And best of luck, everyone, in your fight, hope today is a good day.

  8. Juliette on April 29, 2013 at 1:53 am

    Thank you for this post – it seems like a lot more research needs to be done on this!

    I am wondering how pet insurance companies in the US feel about yearly vaccinations? I live in Ireland and would feel happier if I didn’t have to vaccinate my dogs every year (parvo, lepto, distemper & hepatitis), but if I don’t, the insurance companies won’t cover me.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 9, 2013 at 3:40 pm

      Hi Juliette,
      well, here in the USA, many practices use the same protocol I do and it is recognized by professional groups as acceptable…hopefully in Ireland the insurance companies will realize that they may actually have less pay-out as a consequence of eliminating over-vaccination.
      Dr D

  9. Michael Mulcahey on April 25, 2013 at 5:03 am

    With vaccination commonly recommended annually, most pet owners are accustomed to taking their pets to the vet for “yearly shots.” It seems such a commonplace part of routine pet care that many people do not think about what is actually occurring within their pet’s body. In fact, immunization represents stimulation of the immune system, an inherently inflammatory process. It is typical for some joint or muscle soreness to occur after vaccination, for lethargy to be observed, or for a mild fever to be present for a day or two.

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 9, 2013 at 3:29 pm

      And Michael, it should be noted that pets need a minimum of annual visits, and more than that as they age, regardless of whether vaccinations are administered…
      Dr D

  10. Kelsey Wehr on April 24, 2013 at 6:27 pm

    Dr. Dressler,

    First off, thank you so much for your cancer guide and diet plan. It has been SUCH a help with my recently diagnosed dog.

    My question is this…. You said no vaccines for dogs with cancer, which I agree with. But how do you get around the legal requirement to have a rabies booster? My dog is 4 years old and is just starting treatment for Squamous Cell Carcinoma. He is due for his 3 yr booster in a few weeks….what do I do? I live in Minnesota, where we do not have a rabies medical waiver

    • Dr. Demian Dressler on May 9, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      sometimes laws are irrational. See what you can do with your vet personally….

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