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April 30, 2012

Here is part one (of five) of frequently asked questions dog lovers have asked me since Lilly’s ill-fated response to a rabies vaccine earlier this year. Today, we cover Lilly’s health status and vaccine history.

While this 5-part Adverse Vaccine Reaction FAQ isn’t everything you need to know about adverse vaccine reactions in dogs, it’s my best attempt to cover the big issues and answers – as they pertain to Lily’s vaccine-induced meningoencephalomyelitis / meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and lining of the brain and spinal cord).

Once all five FAQ posts have been published, we’ll add links to all 5 into each post, and we’ll copy everything into one static page for people who want all the adverse vaccine reaction info all at once.

Please note: These questions and answers were posted when it still looked like Lilly might survive. That was not ultimately the case. Lilly died on December 17, 2013. We lost the fight, after spending 23 months and nearly $31,000 trying to save her. 

How old is Lilly?

In May 2012, Lilly will be 8. She was 7 at the time of vaccination.

Did Lilly have any medical problems at the time the vaccine was given?

No. She had a complete exam and was perfectly healthy.

Had Lilly ever had a rabies vaccine before?

Yes. We don’t know much about her vaccination history as a puppy, but she was fully vaccinated at adoption (around 6 months of age). Then, she received a 3-year rabies at:

  • 1 year old
  • 4 years old
  • 7 years old

Had Lilly ever had an adverse vaccine reaction before?

Yes. In the past in response to a variety of vaccines, Lilly has developed:

  • A lump at the injection site (about the size of a plum)
  • A mild fever
  • Mild lethargy, lasting several days

What did you do in response to earlier adverse vaccine reactions?

At first, we simply gave Lilly Benadryl a couple times a day for a few days, and she was fine.

Then, to be more proactive, we began giving Lilly Benadryl BEFORE vaccines were injected, and we began splitting vaccines up. Lilly, then, never got more than one at a time:

  • So that we could try to isolate the which ones were causing trouble
  • So that we put less of a load on her immune system

This included giving Lilly the “plain” distemper / parvovirus / adenovirus combo vaccine without leptospirosis included. We always gave lepto separately.

In consultation with our primary care veterinarian, after splitting and predosing didn’t fix the issue entirely, we began predosing Lilly with steroid injections as well as the Benadryl.

We also went to a much more conservative vaccine schedule – with most major vaccines given only every 3 years per the AAHA Vaccination Guidelines. (Because we have both wildlife and water on our land, Lilly had received the leptospirosis vaccine yearly.)

This strategy seemed to be working. Lilly still felt like crud for a few days after most vaccines, but she bounced back and had never gotten deathly ill.

Why didn’t you just do titers?

Titers were definitely on the table as an option, but all of us felt because of Lilly’s rural lifestyle, a set vaccine schedule made sense. Plus, we felt like our splitting and predosing was working pretty well.

As Lilly got into her super-senior years, we were looking seriously at titering going forward.

What will you do about vaccines now?

We have no choice. Lilly will never receive another vaccine. It’s just too great of a risk to her life. When the time comes in 2015 to renew her legally required rabies certificate, I will request a medical waiver from the county / state.

I will be writing more about what not being able to have vaccines really means to Lilly’s life and lifestyle later.

Are you now an anti-vaccine crusader?


I will be writing soon about my bigger views on vaccines in general, after this. For example, I do think we “over-vaccinate” dogs. However, let me be clear about this … Just because Lilly can never receive another vaccine that does NOT mean I am saying that other people should not give vaccines to their dogs.

How do I know if my dog is at risk for a serious adverse vaccine reaction?

You can’t know. If your dog has ever had even “mild” adverse vaccine reactions, please talk seriously with your veterinarian about ways to mitigate the risks of a serious adverse vaccine reaction and /or whether or not to vaccinate your dog.



If you are new to our story, feel free to use the blog post category pull-down menu in the sidebar or this Adverse Vaccine Reaction category link to access all the posts we’ve published since Lilly got very, very sick with meningoencephalo-myelitis (inflammation of the brain and lining of the brain and spinal cord) after an adverse reaction to a rabies vaccine given January 23, 2012. We’re working VERY hard to help her fully recover from both her cognitive and neurological deficits.


If you want to access all 5 blog Adverse Vaccine Reaction FAQ blog posts, please use these links:

FAQ Part 1 – Lilly’s health status and vaccine history.

FAQ Part 2 – The vaccine itself, factors that people think / assume may have led to the adverse vaccine reaction, and the incidence rate

FAQ Part 3 – Symptoms, diagnosis, and Lilly’s prognosis

FAQ Part 4 – Treatment

FAQ Part 5 – Costs


About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. I’ve watched your path with Lilly on this vaccination roller coaster. It seems like what you’ve dealt with parallels the issues with vaccinations in children. The ARE risky, but is skipping them the safest alternative? I’m not an anti-vaxer, however, I agree that our kids (and dogs, apparently!) are over vaccinated. I hope that your experience and you writing about it will encourage other dog owners to ask questions.

  2. Very good Faq, Roxanne. We too live in a rural area, one now with a serious outbreak of rabies in the skunk population. One dog in our region was recently confiscated by the state and ordered euthanized, a very traumatizing event for the family that could have been avoided if they had kept their dog to date on shots. That dog didn’t have a history of vaccine reaction, they told me they just didn’t recognize the importance because they live in town. Unfortunately, a rabid skunk wandered into their backyard and came in contact with their unvaccinated dog. I think owners need to inform themselves of all risks involving vaccines, both giving them and the possible consequences of not.

  3. Well laid out and articulated, thank you very much. I know a lot of people are leery about vaccines in general, for people and for pets, for varying reasons. The fact that you’ve had this horrible situation, but can still lay it all out rationally is definitely appreciated.

    Go Lily!

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