Why Core Vaccines Must Be Given Upon Intake In A Shelter Environment

Core vaccinations at animal shelters

Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles:- Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

By Elisa Black-Taylor

Administering core vaccines to all animals before or on arrival at shelters is economically viable and is an important step in creating a positive and successful shelter environment going forward.

Core Vaccines

Core vaccines are vaccines that have been recommended through task forces (including the AAFP/AFM Advisory Panel on Feline Vaccines, AAHA Canine Vaccine Task Force, and the AVMA Council on Biologic and Therapeutic Agents), which include representatives from academia, private practices, governmental regulatory bodies, and industry.

These vaccines are shown to significantly improve the chances of an animal forming enough immunity to fight exposure, and where the health of the pet shouldn’t be compromised by receiving the vaccine. In other words, the vaccine should be safe for the majority of the animals it’s given to.

This is a subject that needs to be brought up before every animal control facility as a solution to cut the infection rate (and death rate) caused by kittens (and dogs) not receiving a core vaccine for common diseases. Most intake animals aren’t vaccinated until it’s too late. Many shelters do vaccinate on intake. Others only vaccinate the animals they believe will be adopted out.


Let’s start with some sample statistics. We’ll say a high kill shelter takes in 1000 cats and kittens in one month. Only 300 are adopted out or rescued. The remaining 700 are euthanized. Yes, statistics are that high at many shelters. If each of those kittens were vaccinated on intake, then 700 of the vaccines have gone to cats who never made it out of the shelter.

This is a tough call, because if the cats and kittens aren’t 100% vaccinated, a shelter may experience a severe epidemic of panleuk or parvo, which will eventually cause every kitten or puppy in a shelter under the age of four months to be euthanized. Healthy or not, those potential pets will be killed in an effort to contain the virus.

Panleuk can live for a year on dry surfaces, and for many years in a wet environment.

The ASPCA states the

“parvo virus can live in the environment for months, and may survive on inanimate objects such as food bowls, shoes, clothes, carpet and floors. It is common for an unvaccinated dog to contract parvovirus from the streets, especially in urban areas where there are many dogs.”

Wouldn’t an attempt to prevent an epidemic be more cost effective?

The publicity created through the media, as well as word of mouth, is very damaging to a shelter. It hurts their reputation. People who adopted kittens and puppies, only to have them die two days later aren’t likely to recommend adoption from that shelter to their friends. The disease can spread to animals who come through the doors for discount spay/neuter. Animals who remain overnight before surgery or who are housed in the vicinity post-op may be given a death sentence, simply because of cross contamination at some time while at that shelter. This isn’t good for the shelter image either.

Many animals are euthanized when a shelter vet deems it the “humane” thing to do. These are animals that pet owners would take for treatment and try to help through their illness. Because they’re at an overcrowded, high-kill shelter, they’re expendable.

The Economics of Core Vaccinations

How much does euthanasia cost? Page 20 of this PDF report says $105. . This includes pick up of stray dog or cat, transport the animal to the shelter, provide food and water for the animal, euthanize the animal if not adopted, and send the body to the landfill. You have the same end result, should the animal die from one of the main diseases a core vaccine could have prevented.

The cost of vaccinating every animal at intake may seem like a lot, but vaccines can be bought online for as little as $4 a dose if bought in quantity. Shelters and humane societies may get a bigger break in cost than that.

Let’s compare the $4 core vaccine to the price of NOT vaccinating. An animal becomes sick with an upper respiratory infection. You have the price of antibiotics. Multiply that by many times, because the whole room, if not the entire shelter, is at risk of being infected.

Time to Take Effect

In studies conducted at the University of Florida, Dr. Brian DiGangi reports researchers found it takes adult animals who have never been vaccinated between 1 and 8 days to develop solid immunity, but if they have ever had a vaccination in their life before, that drops to between 1 and 3 days. (Note: This is true only of animals not previously immune to those diseases; for those animals, there is no period of susceptibility.)

Below are some other study findings shared by Dr. DiGangi that showed similar results for modified live virus (MLV) or recombinant vaccines:

  • Feline panleukopenia MLV-3 days
  • Canine parvovirus MLV-5 days
  • Canine distemper recombinant-4 hours
  • Feline herpesvirus intranasal MLV-2 days
  • Feline calicivirus MLV-7 days
  • Bordetella intranasal MLV-2 days
  • There are three criteria that MUST be met for this to work protocol to be effective
  • All animals must be vaccinated regardless of health status or source
  • Vaccinate animals before or as soon after intake as possible
  • Use modified live virus products

Vaccinating Before Arrival

For those wondering how to vaccinate before arriving at the shelter, PAWS Chicago is one example of a plan in place for those who want to surrender their pet. They administer the vaccine, send the family home with the pet, to return in one to two weeks. At this time, the cat or dog is spayed/neutered and placed up for adoption. If an animal is sick and an owner wants to surrender, the owner is given medicine to get the pet well, then returns when the animal is healthy.

Of course, this doesn’t work in the world where everyone says the cat or dog is a stray they’ve never seen before, and just want to dump it at the shelter.

The First 60 Minutes – Animal Sheltering’s Critical Hour

Video that goes into great detail about this process. If you have time, it’s worth watching.

So why don’t shelters do this?

One excuse, of course, is expense. Another reason is shelter employees don’t realize how fast these dogs and cats develop immunity from the vaccine. According to the Maddie’s Fund report on redefining vaccination

“Shelters that only vaccinate some animals, or none, or that fail to vaccinate prior to or at the instant of intake are not just increasing the risk of infectious disease outbreaks, they’re guaranteeing them.”

So what made PAWS Chicago to have a change of heart in how they saw core vaccinations? In 2009, PAWS had their shelter procedures and facilities assessed by the University of Florida and Purdue University, a process that showed them just how high risk their vaccination practices were.

When Shelter Animals are Exposed to Disease

Listed below are when the typical shelter pet is exposed to disease. These disease contact points are from the PAWS Chicago assessment, but most shelters should be about the same as far as contamination goes.

  • The cage at the animal control facility
  • Removed from the cage and taken to the assessment area at animal control
  • In the assessment area
  • Taken back to their cage
  • From the cage to the PAWS transport van
  • In the transport van
  • From the transport van to the cage at PAWS
  • In the cage
  • From the cage to the medical exam room
  • In the exam room
  • From the exam room back to the cage

As a former rescuer, this sounds accurate. Perhaps animal control officers who set live traps should attempt to vaccinate before arriving at the shelter, if at all possible. I’m not sure whether this is legal for them to do, it’s just a suggestion.

Shouldn’t any organization that intakes cats and dogs be convinced to follow these guidelines? Vaccines are inexpensive. Much cheaper than treating for infection, and definitely less expensive than euthanasia. And the public image of the shelter can’t be measured in a dollar amount. No one wants to adopt from a shelter known for a higher than average amount of infectious diseases. Especially if they have pets at home that could be exposed.

For those of you who want to learn exactly when a feline or canine should be vaccinated, there’s an excellent article available from UC Davis, which was updated November 2012. I won’t go into the recommended ages here, as I’ve already taken up enough space on this subject.

The difficult part of this research is getting local shelters to listen to these statistics. Comments anyone?


P.S. Apologies for the very long read.



  1. Redifining Vaccination on Intake
  2. The First 60 Minutes Webcast

aspca.org – dog care parnovirus

64 thoughts on “Why Core Vaccines Must Be Given Upon Intake In A Shelter Environment”

  1. No kill shelter will vaccinate, neuter, or treat minor illnesses unless adoption is confirmed.
    They consider it a waste of money when they are going to kill tomorrow.

  2. Dang Michael, that’s fast. See, if it was me, I would be lucky to pull something together in a couple of weeks. I learned something today. I didn’t know that a dog starts receiving partial immunity (or at least, less severe symptoms) for distemper at 4 hours! I have had to pick up a dog with an advanced case of distemper. It is a nasty disease and a terrible way to die. An outbreak at a shelter would be devastating.

  3. Just so you know, Dr Ellen Jefferson is at Austin Pets Alive, which is the largest No Kill shelter in the U.S. Best Friends, the largest sanctuary had a write up on this situation a few months ago. I would love to see one of you write something up on this. Now we have the lazy people that don’t want to vaccinate on intake spouting this idiotic law so they can do less work than they do now. It is a shame that the animals health and well being are not being taken into account.



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