You may be wondering, does Fluffy really need all those shots? What would happen if she didn't get them?
The first step is to educate yourself. You could read Stop the Shots, by John Clifton, and Vaccines Explained, by Laurie Coger, DVM. These are very short straightforward books that help make sense of this issue. For a deeper investigation of the vaccine dilemma, read Catherine O'Driscoll's books What Vets Don't Tell You About Vaccines and Shock to the System.
Lately I have heard claims on TV and radio programs that people who are anti-vaccine are "unscientific," whatever that means. Actually, once you understand how vaccines work, the damage they do, and how the immune system works, there is nothing more unscientific than the annual or triannual vaccine.
The vaccines for the major contagious diseases of dogs and cats (rabies, distemper, parvo, and panleukopenia) typically provoke lifelong immunity when they are given to young animals undergoing the initial puppy and kitten series of shots, finishing up at 12-16 weeks of age. There is no medical need to ever revaccinate. Repeating the vaccines, in fact, merely damages our pets' health.
Why then does the vaccine "expire"? Because that is when the vaccine manufacturer wants you to buy another one. It would cause great financial pain to the vaccine industry if every pet owner decided to never booster another vaccine.
How can you tell if your pet is immune to these serious diseases? You can have a blood sample sent in for an antibody level, or titer. Titer tests bear interpretation, however. A low titer is not necessarily a reason to vaccinate. Distemper is not a common disease currently, and the virus does not survive for long outside the infected dog. Most of our dogs have never encountered distemper virus except in a vaccine. Lack of exposure could lead to a low titer.
This is not a bad thing. I have been vaccinated against polio three times in my life. Do I currently have a measurable antibody titer to polio? I hope not! Why would my body waste valuable energy and resources creating antibodies to a disease I will likely never encounter? And if I did come across polio, I would be able to produce antibodies in a fraction of a second. There is a whole part of the immune system that is devoted to remembering specific pathogens.
What about the bacterial diseases, like Lyme, Lepto, and kennel cough (Bordetella)? Bacteria are more complex than viruses, and are consequently more challenging to vaccinate against. Antibodies are only part of the immune system, and the body often must involve other resources to eliminate these organisms. It is very common for dogs vaccinated against Lyme disease or kennel cough to get the disease in spite of vaccination, because these vaccines are largely ineffective. Vaccinating against Leptospirosis does not prevent your dog from getting the disease, but does prevent the dog from shedding Leptospirosis in its urine.
Do you need to take your pet to the vet if you're not going to vaccinate? There is tremendous value in a complete and thorough physical exam preformed by a holistic veterinarian. You will receive information about improving your pet's health, diet, and lifestyle.
There is nothing better than having an animal age gracefully, without chronic disease, medications, and interventions. My experience has shown me that this is possible and achievable, regardless of the age or health of your pet when you start doing things differently. Sure, some pets are so ill that they will not experience complete resolution of their symptoms, but there is nothing more encouraging than making positive changes in the life of someone you love.