Vaccinations in Dogs with Cancer

Last Modified: November 12, 2006


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

My 8-year-old cocker spaniel was diagnosed with Epitheliotropic Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma in February of this year, following a biopsy of a small lump on his lip. We declined chemotherapy after the vet advised that few dogs survived [this condition] and that he may only live for around 3 months. Eight months later, he is healthy and happy with no obvious problems (we are very pleased to say). On a visit to the vet in the summer, they mentioned that his lymph glands were not as enlarged as they would have expected, given the diagnosis in February (i.e. not larger to any degree). He is due to stay at the kennels in January, and has not had his booster vaccinations, as the vet advised against this due to his low immunity. Should I ask for his boosters or not? I would welcome your view.


Lili Duda, VMD, Section Editor of the OncoLink Veterinary Oncology Menu, responds:

The question of vaccinating a dog with lymphoma is actually a three- part question. First, there is the question of whether a dog with lymphoma can mount an appropriate immune response to a vaccination -- in other words, can he develop protection against the disease for which he is being vaccinated? This is a question because both the cancer itself and the treatment for cancer (that is, chemotherapy) can suppress the immune system. Second, there is the question of whether vaccinating a dog with lymphoma can make the cancer worse, cause a relapse in a dog that is in remission from his cancer, or otherwise result in harmful vaccination reactions. Third, there is the general question, which is subject to much current discussion in both the veterinary community and dog-owning community at large, as to how much and how often dogs should be vaccinated.

With regards to the first part, there is some recent evidence that dogs with lymphoma, as well as dogs that are receiving chemotherapy in general, can still have an appropriate response to vaccinations and be immune to the diseases for which we routinely vaccinate. However, every common-sense effort should be made to minimize a potentially immunocompromised dog's exposure to contagious diseases, while still letting the dog lead a normal, interactive life.

Regarding the second question, there is no published evidence that vaccines can either cause lymphoma, cause relapse in an animal that is in remission from lymphoma, or make the lymphoma worse. There is also no evidence to suggest that an otherwise healthy dog receiving chemotherapy for cancer cannot tolerate vaccinations. Any dog that is sick and not feeling well should not receive vaccinations, but should instead wait until he has recovered from his ailment and is healthy. Furthermore, dogs with lymphoma or compromised immune systems for any reason should not receive "modified live" vaccines. There are a variety of other types of vaccines available.

Last, there have been numerous recent changes made to vaccination recommendations for dogs. AS A GENERAL GUIDELINE ONLY, most vaccinations probably provide immunity for much longer than the 1 year currently suggested by vaccine manufacturers, and most adult dogs will have adequate immunity if they have been vaccinated within the past three years. Every dog should be evaluated as an individual based on his risk, potential exposure to disease, and general health.

The only vaccination legally required in most states is rabies, and this is because of the significant health risk this disease poses to humans, as well as other companion animals. Boarding kennels often require current vaccinations.

You can discuss this with the boarding facility and your veterinarian. If there is a medical contraindication to vaccinating your dog, your veterinarian can provide a letter of medical necessity to this effect.


Any veterinarian who is a member of the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) can obtain a copy of the 2006 AAHA (American Animal Hospital Association) Canine Vaccine Guidelines at