SPCA New Zealand
Advice & welfare

The importance of vaccinating your pet

If you’ve adopted a pet, it’s important that you understand the different types of vaccinations available to them, and how these protect your pet’s health and wellbeing.

Vaccinations for dogs

The core vaccinations for dogs in New Zealand protect them against canine parvovirus, leptospirosis, canine distemper and hepatitis.

Canine parvovirus

Canine parvovirus is a highly infectious and usually fatal viral infection that is seen far too often in SPCA Centres and animal shelters around the country. This disease mainly affects puppies, but can also affect older dogs which are unvaccinated or have not had regular boosters. Sadly, parvovirus causes great pain and suffering to dogs and can result in death if untreated.

Parvovirus can be transmitted by any person, animal or object that comes in contact with an infected dog’s faeces. The hardy virus can live in the environment for years, so just taking your dog for a walk down the street or to the park can put them at risk of contracting the disease if they are not fully vaccinated.

It is essential that dog owners protect their pets by making sure their dogs are up to date on vaccinations, and ensure their puppy does not go outside until they have been fully vaccinated. A series of shots are required that start when the puppy is just six weeks old.

Symptoms of parvovirus includes lethargy, severe vomiting, and bloody diarrhoea that results in life-threatening dehydration. There’s no specific treatment, however an infected dog may be put on a drip, giving antibiotics to prevent any secondary infections, and given medication to try to prevent vomiting.

Canine distemper

Dogs of all ages (most serious in puppies or older dogs) can be affected by canine distemper, which is most commonly spread by direct contact with an infected dog. However, the virus is persistent in the environment, therefore strengthening the requirements for vaccinations. Symptoms vary from fever and depression, to coughing, vomiting and diarrhoea, discharge from eyes and mouth and coughing.

Sadly dogs with very severe symptoms often don’t survive this disease. Mildly affected dogs can recover, but some will go on to have neurological problems in later life where they can suffer from muscle tics, difficulty walking or walking in circles and seizures. Other long term symptoms are eye problems and thickening of the skin on the nose and pads.

Thankfully thanks to widespread vaccination, canine distemper is now uncommon in New Zealand.


Leptospirosis is a serious disease that affects the liver and kidneys in dogs and in severe cases can be fatal. Less severely affected dogs can recover from this disease, but will carry the bacteria for months afterwards, and their urine is an infection risk to other animals.

The main source of infection is via another animal’s urine. It may be spread by rodents and less frequently also other animals. If your dog frequents places inhabited by rats – the bush, creeks and streams, farms, parks – or if you know there are rats around your home, your dog should be vaccinated, especially if it is of a breed such as a terrier that enjoys hunting rodents.

Leptospirosis is generally seen north of Taupo in New Zealand, but has been seen as far south as Palmerston North. Leptospirosis can also infect people, of which infection is usually from direct contact with animals.

Infectious Canine Hepatitis

This is a serious and often fatal disease for dogs. It causes fever, signs of liver disease, inflammation, gastrointestinal, ocular and neurological problems. The virus can be spread by infected body secretions, saliva, faeces and urine. The disease is now relatively uncommon due to good vaccination practices, however cases do appear due to lapses in vaccinations.

The ‘Kennel Cough’ vaccine

Your vet may ask if you wish to give your dog an ‘optional’ vaccine for Kennel Cough. The name “Kennel Cough” refers to a group of diseases causing an infectious cough transmitted from dogs to other dogs. While the vaccination against Kennel Cough is not 100% preventative, vaccinated dogs can still catch kennel cough but are less likely to, and if they do the disease is not likely to be as severe and they are likely to recover quicker.

This vaccination is often a requirement for dogs going into boarding kennels, doggy daycares and may also be beneficial for dogs visiting areas where they mix closely with many different dogs on a regular basis. In older dogs, or those with medical conditions, it may be beneficial to ensure they are given the kennel cough vaccine as well – check with your vet.

Vaccinations for cats


Also known as Feline Enteritis, this is a viral disease causing severe vomiting and diarrhoea especially in young kittens. It is spread by the faeces and urine of infected cats and pregnant cats can transmit the disease to their kittens in the womb. However, the disease is easily prevented by routine vaccinations.

In late pregnancy the kittens survive, but the virus can damage the part of the brain which controls co-ordination. This results in a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, also known as ‘wobbly kitten syndrome’. Kittens with cerebellar hypoplasia suffer from tremors and poor coordination and may also be born blind. This damage is permanent, but they may go on to have otherwise healthy lives.

Panleukopenia is highly contagious and attacks the cat’s immune system, leaving it unable to fight infection. There is no specific treatment other than fluids and medication to control vomiting and antibiotics to prevent secondary infections. Older cats are more likely to survive Panleukopenia than young kittens.


Feline calicivirus (cat flu) can by spread by direct contact with affected cats, or by air-borne spread, or contamination of the environment. Cats that recover can occasionally become lifelong carriers, and able to transmit the infection to other cats, and signs of the virus may recur when the cat is under stress of any kind.

Symptoms of feline calcivirus include fever, inappetance, discharge from the nose and eyes and sneezing. It can also cause drooling and severe mouth ulcers. More severe strains can lead to pneumonia. Stress or illness can cause flare-ups of the virus. Cats of all ages may be affected, but the disease is most common in kittens.

It’s important to note that vaccination prevents infection with some strains of feline calicivirus but not all. However, cats that do become infected generally have much milder symptoms than those that are unvaccinated.

Vaccinations for rabbits

There have been reports of rabbits dying across the country from Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV). This calcivirus causes a highly fatal haemorrhagic disease in rabbits with a mortality rate of up to 100%.

Animals of all ages are susceptible to infection but rabbits older than 5-7 weeks of age are most often affected by serious disease resulting in death. Most infected animals show no signs of disease but just suddenly die within 12-36 hours of the onset of infection. Occasionally rabbits may show signs such as anorexia, depression, congestion of mucous membranes, and neurological abnormalities such as incoordination or convulsions.

If a rabbit survives the initial infection, death from liver failure can occur over days to several weeks. A small number of rabbits may develop a chronic form of the disease, they may have mild symptoms, and may become carriers of the disease.

Infected rabbits shed the virus in their urine, faeces and respiratory secretions. It can be transmitted to other rabbits through direct contact with these secretions or on contaminated objects (such as through a cage, bowls or people’s hands). The virus can survive in the environment for a month and flies and other insects are thought to transmit the virus mechanically (by moving infected secretions from place to place).

Vaccination is the best way to ensure that your pet rabbits will remain safe from the disease.

Baby rabbit (called kittens!) should be vaccinated between ten and twelve weeks of age and then every year. If the chance of exposure to the virus is high, rabbits can be vaccinated before this but they will require another vaccination at ten and twelve weeks of age. Rabbits need to be in good health to be vaccinated.

Rabbit owners should also take the following extra precautions:

  • Prevent direct and indirect contact between domestic and wild rabbits, and avoid cutting grass and feeding it to your rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits.
  • Remove their uneaten food on a daily basis.
  • Wash hands, with warm soapy water between handling rabbits.
  • Good insect control is also important and will help reduce the risks of introduction of both RHDV and myxomatosis. Insect control could include insect proofing the hutch or keeping your rabbits indoors.
  • All cages and equipment should be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

A new strain of RHDV has recently been released in New Zealand in an attempt to control wild rabbits. There is always some risk that this virus may reach domestic rabbits. Therefore, rabbit owners should keep in contact with their veterinarian for up to date advice about the best way to protect their rabbits as vaccination and other recommendations may differ.

Other pets

Vaccines aren’t required for pet birds, fish and guinea pigs.

In general, most companion chickens or backyard flocks are not vaccinated in New Zealand. The best thing to do would be to ask a local veterinarian what they recommend. But do remember your chooks and roosters will need regular worming and red mite control.

Where there are large number of pigs, vaccinations should be used routinely. Common vaccines include Leptospirosis, Parvovirus, Erysipelas and Mycoplasma. Contact your local vet regarding their recommendations for your area, you can also ask regarding worming for your pigs as well. If the pig is considered at risk the recommendation is for a vaccination for piglets at one week old and booster 2 weeks later and pregnant sows 2-6 weeks before farrowing and re-vaccination 2 weeks prior to farrowing.

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