It’s so sad when you hear about someone’s newest addition to the family succumbing to a horrible disease like parvovirus, distemper or snuffles within a few days of getting to their new homes, only to find out it could have been prevented with the correct vaccinations. Getting a puppy or kitten is always exciting but just like human children, they also need to be immunised when they are very young. It’s important for us to understand their early life stages in order for us to go into their care and well being with a good knowledge base.

So, let us start at the very beginning…

A newborn puppy or kitten isn’t naturally immune; they get some antibody protection which they receive from their mothers blood, and then more from their mother’s milk, especially the first milk, also called colostrum, but this is very important within the first few hours of birth as after approximately 6 hours the puppies stomach lining begins to change and after two days it cannot absorb any more of these antibodies. Proper vaccination of the mother will ensure she has the correct antibodies to pass on to her babies. That is why newborns that don’t get their mother’s milk, like fosters and abandoned babies are more susceptible to contracting diseases.

The antibodies received from the mother will circulate in the newborns blood for a couple of weeks, eventually it will get to a period where it’s too low to provide adequate protection but too high to allow a vaccine to work, they call this the window of susceptibility, the period varies for every litter and even every individual puppy or kitten, so it’s difficult to tell the best time to vaccinate.  During this time, even though a puppy/kitten has been vaccinated it might still contract a disease. That is why vaccinating too early can be a problem, especially if the puppy or kitten is sent to a new home at a very early stage and unknown to them, the vaccination isn’t providing proper protection and they take it into different environments with all new  dangers. Multiple vaccinations are imperative, in case the previous ones did not work.

Vets usually recommend that puppies are vaccinated for the first time at 6 weeks of age and kittens at 8 weeks of age. They have to receive at least two booster vaccinations thereafter with monthly intervals.

The following is a typical vaccination schedule; this may differ slightly from vet to vet, and in different areas according to the local risk factors:


Puppy schedule:

  • 6 – 8 weeks: This is a 5-in-1 and includes Parvovirus, Distemper, Hepatitis and Parainfluenza
  • 10 – 12 weeks: This is another 5-in-1 and if the puppy is 12 weeks old the first Rabies vaccination can be given.
  • 14 – 16 weeks: This will be the last 5-in-1 and the first or second Rabies vaccination. If it is the first Rabies vaccination the puppy will require a booster in one month’s time.

Kitten schedule:

  • 8 weeks: Vaccinated against Calici virus, Panleukopenia, Rhinotracheitis and Feline leukaemia virus.
  • 12 weeks: Same as at 8 weeks plus 1st Rabies vaccination
  • 16 weeks: Rabies booster.


For both dogs and cats it is recommended to have vaccinations every 1 – 2 years after the primary vaccinations.

Important to remember that when your puppy or kitten is vaccinated it is not immediately protected, it can take up to 5 days after administration for the immune system to recognise and respond to the virus/bacteria in the vaccine to produce antibodies, and up to 14 days after before the puppy/kitten is at its full protection, but this could still be insufficient and that is why vet’s suggest two or more vaccinations several weeks apart to achieve proper protection.

Vaccinations protect your puppies/kittens from highly contagious diseases such as canine distemper, parvovirus and respiratory tract infections. It also protects against rabies which is actually transmissible to humans. Important to note is that vaccinations are not cures and if a pet is already sick it might do more harm than good, so always get your vaccinations at the vet so they are able to do an overall check of your pet first and make sure all is in order.

The majority of pets experience no adverse effects after a vaccination, but a small number may become feverish and/or have a reduced appetite. These are mild reactions and don’t last too long, in very rare cases a pet might experience an allergic reaction  but the possibility of this is very small and can be treated successfully if attended to immediately.

When purchasing a puppy or kitten from a breeder/animal welfare/adoption agency, ensure that the puppy/kitten has a valid vet card or vaccination certificate; “home vaccinations” which are not administered correctly by a vet or vet nurse, could be ineffective or could even exacerbate illness, and symptoms of illness could be missed by a lay-person. In these situations it’s difficult for the vet to decide on re-vaccinating as over-vaccination is not entirely without risk.

So, when purchasing a new puppy or kitten, preferably only buy one that has had its first vaccination and has a legitimate vaccine card, books are issued with the vaccine so no excuses that they are still coming. Legitimate breeders will usually work closely with a Veterinarian, so ask for their Vet’s details so that if your Vet has any questions they can contact them.


It’s sad to know that very few South African pet owners have their pets regularly vaccinated, less than 15% or dog owners and less than 10% or cat owners will vaccinate annually. This means that every year puppies/kittens die or suffer unnecessarily dues to illnesses that are preventable if only they were vaccinated.