Why do we lose puppies to infectious diseases when they should be protected by passive or active immunity? To understand this, let’s take a closer look at how puppy vaccinations work.
Passive Vs Vaccination Active Immunity
Passive immunity comes from the mother and is the ability to fight a disease. In puppies, most passive immunity is derived from ingesting colostrum from their mother. Colostrum from a tube or from bovine, supports the puppy immune system but cannot replace the colostrum from the mother dog. The mother’s immunity is particularly specific to the diseases in the microenvironment of her own kennel. Vaccination of the dams will help provide protection to their pups, until the antibodies “run out”, somewhere between six weeks and 20 weeks of age.
Active immunity is the immunity provided by either puppy vaccination (using killed or live bacteria or viruses) or natural exposure to the disease. For active immunity to develop, passive immunity to a specific disease must be below a threshold level.
Puppy Vaccination Vs Immunization
A vaccination is a dose of vaccine we give to a patient. An immunization is the response we get from a vaccination – it represents the body’s reaction to a vaccine. Just because an individual got a vaccination (shot, jab, injection etc.) does not mean they responded to develop immunity.
Cellular Vs Antibody Protection
Antibodies are the proteins in our circulation that help our bodies fight disease. Cellular immunity represents the cells – white blood cells – that charge in and gobble up bacteria and viruses – like little PacMen in the classic video game. We can measure antibodies with a titer test. The titer measures the antibodies – the proteins that are circulating in the body to block disease. We don’t have a test to assess cellular immunity.
A canine nomograph is an estimate of the how much antibody the mother’s colostrum is able to pass to her litter of pups. During the puppy’s first hours after birth, its intestinal tract absorbs colostral antibody into its bloodstream. This passive antibody helps protect the newborn puppy from the same diseases the mother has immunity to. While this antibody is at higher levels, it can neutralize viruses such as canine parvovirus and canine distemper virus. As the puppy matures, the maternal antibody declines by half approximately every two weeks until it is no longer present in the pup. But during high levels of maternal antibody, puppy vaccine can be blocked. Maternal antibody interference is one of the most common causes of vaccine failure to immunize!
We give puppies multiple doses of vaccine because we often don’t know what their maternal antibody levels are, and when the vaccine will be effective. Your veterinarian’s nomograph testing helps determine the best timing of vaccination to assure the puppies will be effectively immunized. The dog nomograph is limited by the mother’s ability to make colostrum and for the pups to receive it. It should not be used as a definitive indication of disease protection. I recommend contacting your veterinarian prior to submitting a nomograph if you are experiencing a disease outbreak.
For more tips on raising a puppy or if you have a specific question about puppy vaccinations, including the puppy parvo vaccine reach out to your veterinarian or call our Pet Care Pros at 800.786.4751.
The Revival Vaccine Finder is a free tool to help choose the right vaccines for your dog.
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Written by: Marty Greer, DVM
Director of Veterinary Services
Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.