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Professional Version

Administration of Vaccines in Animals


Ian Rodney Tizard

, BVMS, BSc, PhD, DSc (Hons), DACVM, Department of Veterinary Pathobiology, College of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2023

Route of Administration of Vaccines in Animals

The most common route of vaccine administration is SC or IM injection. This approach is excellent for small numbers of animals and for diseases in which systemic immunity is important. In addition, the veterinarian can be sure an animal has received the appropriate dose of vaccine.

However, local immunity is sometimes more important than systemic immunity, and in these cases it is more appropriate to administer the vaccine at the site of microbial invasion. Intranasal vaccines are used for a number of diseases, such as these examples:

A potential disadvantage is that these techniques may require handling each individual animal. Spraying of vaccines enables the vaccines to be inhaled by all the animals in a herd or flock—an advantage when the unit is large. This method is commonly used in the poultry industry.

Alternatively, vaccines may be administered in feed or drinking water (eg, vaccination of poultry for Newcastle disease and avian encephalomyelitis Avian Encephalomyelitis Avian encephalomyelitis is a viral infection affecting the CNS of several species of birds. Signs include tremors, ataxia, and weakness that progresses to paralysis. Diagnosis is based on history... read more Avian Encephalomyelitis ). Drinking water vaccines are increasingly administered in large swine operations. Fish and shrimp may be vaccinated by immersion in a solution of antigen, which is then absorbed through their skin and gills.

Combination Vaccines for Animals

Because of the complexity of many disease syndromes and to avoid giving animals multiple injections, it is common to use mixtures of organisms in single vaccines.

When a mixture of antigens is administered to an animal simultaneously, they may compete with one another; vaccine manufacturers modify combination vaccines accordingly. Vaccines should never be mixed indiscriminately because one component may dominate and interfere with responses to the other components.

The simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines to an animal does not present difficulties to the immune system of normal, healthy animals. The immune system has evolved to respond to complex organisms and multiple simultaneous challenges.

Vaccination Schedules for Animals

Although it is not possible to devise precise schedules for each vaccine, certain principles are common to all methods of active immunization.

Newborn animals are passively protected by maternal antibodies. Maternal antibodies have an inhibitory effect on antibody production; in general, neonates cannot be effectively protected by vaccination until maternally derived antibody titers have waned.

If stimulation of immunity is deemed necessary at this stage, the mother may be vaccinated during late pregnancy, timing the doses so that peak antibody titers are reached at the time of colostrum formation. Modified live virus vaccines against viruses that cause abortion should not be used in pregnant animals.

Neonatal animals are protected against disease caused by that specific pathogen while sufficient maternal antibodies are present. However, passive antibody titers decrease exponentially. These maternal antibodies may decrease below protective titers while, at the same time, preventing successful immunization.

Inactivated vaccines are not very effective in conferring protective immunity in the face of maternal antibodies. Modified live virus vaccines, however, may induce a protective primary immune response and some immunologic memory.

Because the precise time of loss of maternal immunity cannot be predicted, current recommendations require that young animals must be vaccinated multiple times to ensure successful immunization, and appropriate biosecurity measures should be used until immunity develops.

The interval between vaccine doses depends on an animal's immunologic memory. The duration of this memory depends on multiple factors, such as the nature of the antigen, the use of live or dead organisms, the adjuvants used, and the route of administration.

Some vaccines may induce immunity that persists for an animal's lifetime. Other vaccines may require boosting only once every 2–3 years. Even killed viral vaccines may protect some animals against disease for many years. Unfortunately, the minimal duration of immunity has rarely been reliably measured.

Individual animal and vaccine variability make it difficult to estimate the duration of protective immunity. Within a group of animals, there may be a great difference between the shortest and longest duration of protection. Vaccines may differ in their composition, and although all may induce immunity in the short term, it cannot be assumed that they confer equal longterm immunity.

A notable difference likely exists between the minimal level of immunity required to protect most animals and the level of immunity required to ensure protection of all animals.

A veterinarian should always assess the relative risks and benefits to an animal when determining the frequency of revaccination. Owners should be made aware that protection can be maintained reliably only when vaccines are administered in accordance with the protocol approved by vaccine licensing authorities. The duration of immunity claimed by a vaccine manufacturer is the minimal duration supported by the data available at the time of approval.

Point-of-care tests for persistent antibodies are commonplace. If an animal possesses an adequate antibody titer, then revaccination may be postponed.

Vaccines are commonly rated according to their importance. Essential (or core) vaccines should be administered to all animals of a species, and veterinarians should ensure that immunity is maintained throughout an animal's life by appropriate revaccination.

Optional (or noncore) vaccines protect animals against sporadic, mild, or uncommon diseases and should only be administered when circumstances warrant and when the benefits clearly outweigh the risks involved.

For example, essential vaccines in dogs in the US would normally include canine distemper virus, parvovirus, adenovirus, and rabies virus. Optional vaccines may include canine coronavirus, parainfluenza virus, Bordetella bronchiseptica, leptospirosis, and Lyme disease.

DIVA Vaccines in Animals

Both natural infection and vaccination induce a protective immune response. As a result, testing an animal’s serum for antibodies may not differentiate between infected and vaccinated animals (DIVA).

This problem can be resolved by removing a nonprotective antigen from the vaccine. When this is done, testing the animal for antibodies against this specific antigen enables DIVA to occur. Only naturally infected animals will have antibodies against that antigen.

A simple serologic assay such as ELISA will permit this differentiation and enable eradication to proceed in the presence of vaccination. An example of this is the eradication of Aujeszky disease (porcine herpesvirus 1) from commercial swine in many developed countries with the aid of DIVA vaccines.

Key Points

  • Newborn animals cannot be successfully vaccinated because of the presence of antibodies derived from their mother. Effective vaccination must wait until maternal immunity has waned.

  • Testing animals for preexisting antibodies prior to revaccination can help prevent unnecessary vaccination.

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