Rabies vaccines save lives. This statement seems obvious since vaccinations help develop antibodies to prevent infection from certain diseases, in this case, the virus that causes rabies. Researchers looking at vaccination of dogs in Africa found, however, that the risk of death from any disease was less in those dogs who had been vaccinated using the rabies vaccine. This means that somehow those dogs who were injected with the rabies vaccine were better able to fight off other diseases. So their immune system had been enhanced.
This three-year study which looked at the additive protective effects of rabies vaccination was done with free-roaming dogs in South Africa. The dogs were separated into three age groups and those dogs who were vaccinated under four months of age had the most significant protective effect from vaccination. Young dogs are at more risk of getting sick from any disease so having an enhanced immune system from vaccination helps keep them healthy.
This enhancement of the immune system from vaccination is called a “non- specific protective effect.” This happens in dogs and humans with certain vaccines. When a vaccine, in this case, a rabies vaccine, is administered to an animal the vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies which, if a dog is Infected, will attach and kill the rabies virus before it causes disease. With this protective effect, the vaccination also ‘wakes up’ the rest of the immune system so when an animal is infected with any other the disease they are better equipped to stay healthy.
Rabies as a disease is a severe and always fatal disease. There is no treatment for animals once they are infected with the rabies virus, so vaccination is the only way to protect animals from rabies. The most common source of rabies infection for people is from bites from dogs. To protect dogs and people from rabies and to help enhance the immune system of dogs, rabies vaccinations should be administered by four months of age.
Written by Dr. David Kerr, DVM