The Truth About Titer Testing Dogs vs Vaccination

Titer testing dogs vs vaccination.  Does one replace the other?  Isn't it easier to just vaccinate your dog when your vet advises or is this approach really harmful?  Well in this article I'll discuss just why you might consider titer testing dogs as an alternative to vaccination and what the titer test blood results really mean.


Dog vaccination really works

Dog vaccinations have had a massive impact on the health of our pet dog population.  Making previously ubiquitous and deadly diseases like parvovirus and distemper much less common.  If you vaccinate your dog and live in an area with a high vaccine uptake then chances are that your vet may hardly ever see these infections.

If you want to know more about why your dog should be vaccinated and what diseases they should be protected against then check out guide to puppy shots.

How often should you vaccinate your dog?

For now though, lets say your puppy has had their initial vaccination course finishing at around 16 weeks of age.  When should you get them vaccinated again?

Standard recommendations for our core vaccines would be to have a booster vaccine at 6-12 months of age and then every 3 years after this to guarantee that they remain protected.  

Our non-core, "lifestyle" vaccines by contrast typically need to have a booster administered every 12 months for our dogs to maintain their immunity.

Titer testing dogs

If we want to take an individual tailored approach to vaccination however we can instead consider blood antibody titer testing dogs instead of vaccination.  This works by measuring the number of antibodies in the blood and using this as a guideline of a dogs immune status.

As a rough summary, when a dog is vaccinated one way the body responds is by producing antibodies.  These are special proteins that recognize the vaccine bug and help the body to fight the infection.  You might then think that simply if there are lots of antibodies then a dog will be immune and if there are few antibodies a dog will be susceptible to infection.  Unfortunately it is not this simple.

For most of our lifestyle, non-core vaccines (such as canine cough, leptospirosis, parainfluenza and lymes disease) antibodies do not give us an indication of immunity.  High antibody levels may be found in dogs who are immune as well as those who are susceptible to the disease.  they will also be high in those actually infected with the disease at the time of blood testing.  Low antibody levels are exactly the same, some dogs will be protected and other will be susceptible to infection.

This means that for our non-core vaccines, re-vaccination at the specified interval is the only way to ensure your dog remains protected.  Antibody titre testing dogs is of no benefit for these diseases.

The situation is different when it comes to the diseases that our core vaccines protect our dogs against.  Namely parvovirus, distemper, infectious hepatitis or adenovirus as well as rabies.  With these diseases a high antibody titer test means that your pet is highly likely to be protected against the diseases tested.

Titer testing is useless for lifestyle vaccines but can play a role with core vaccines and dog titer testing may be considered by some an alternative to dog vaccinations

Titer testing dogs as an alternative to vaccination?

Notice though I said highly likely, not definitely.  All lab tests have some degree of error.  With vaccine titer tests this error may mean that, depending on the exact test run, there may be a false positive rate of around 8-9%.  This means that in every group of 12 dogs thought to be immune due to a positive antibody titer test, 1 should actually have tested as negative and so may still be susceptible to infection.

So lets move on to what a negative test result actually means when we titre test dogs.  From the explanation I've already gone through it would make sense that if antibody levels drop below a certain amount then a dog will become susceptible to infection.  Unfortunately, or perhaps actually fortunately, this is not always the case.

This is because there are parts of the immune system which act as a memory center.  When these detect the bug they have been programmed to remember they may be capable of kick starting the immune system back into gear and fighting the infection even when antibody levels are low.

This doesn't always happen though and a low antibody level may mean that a dog is no longer immune to the disease.  The only way to know would be to try and infect them with the disease and see if they got sick.  Not something to be recommended!

So a positive result is really likely to mean that your dog is immune.  Although it isn't an absolute guarantee.

A negative result means that your dog may or may not be immune.

When should you titer test your dog?

So, if after all this you know that your would not vaccinate your dog if they have a high titre test, when should you get your dog titre tested?

Well, we can be pretty confident that after the initial vaccination program a dog will be immune for at least 3 years.  A very small number of dogs though will be what is known as non-responders, who never respond to vaccination.  To know if your dog is a non responder or not you can consider titre testing them at 24 weeks old or 2 weeks after their final vaccination (whichever is later).

a positive result is really likely to mean that your dog is immune. Although it isn't an absolute guarantee.A negative result means that your dog may or may not be immune.jpg

That done, the next titre test should be carried out the next time your dog is said to be due a core vaccination.  If they are positive then you can think about skipping their vaccination.  The next question then is when should they have their next titre test?

Well, that is also not that simple.  We know that some dogs will be protected for 5, 7 or even 9 years or longer following vaccination.  Having a positive titre only tells us that a dog is likely to be immune, it doesn't tell us how fast this antibody level is falling and so we are unable to predict when their antibody titre level will fall below that needed for protection.

In general it is recommended that a titre is carried out every 12 months to re-assess the need for vaccination.  We need to be aware though that this may mean that there may be a period of many months where the titre is low and your dog is no longer protected from disease.  Although this is unlikely to be a common issue that results in serious disease we just can't tell for sure.

Rabies is a different matter.  In many cases vaccination is required by law and titre tests are not always accepted as a substitute for vaccination.  You will need to talk to your vet to find out what the requirements are where you live.

See, I told you it wasn't as simple as you may have been led to believe!

So why go through the process of getting your dog titre tested instead of vaccinated?

Dog vaccination side effects

The simple reason is the risk of vaccination side effects.  But are dog vaccination side effects really that serious and common?  The simple answer is no, for the tremendous majority of dogs, vaccination is incredibly safe.  Vaccine reactions requiring treatment are very uncommon.

Vaccines effectively trick the body into thinking it has become infected and needs to mount an immune response.  If you have been vaccinated then you'll know that for a day or 2 you might feel a bit under the weather.  Our pets are the same.  They might be a bit quiet, less active, sleep more and go off their food.  The effects are generally only mild, if at all, and they are soon back to normal without the need for any treatment.

A very small number of dogs will get more severe reactions that require treatment.  The list of potential serious side effects is long and they can sound scary but it must be remembered that the actual risk of developing any of these is absolutely tiny.

Ultimately you need to decide which course of action you are most comfortable with.  Do you titre test your dog and accept the limitations of this route along with the small risks this approach may expose your dog to.  Or do you instead vaccinate when advised by your vet and again accept the small risk this may expose your dog to.

Which route you choose is up to you.  Cost may also be a factor in the decision for you and you should discuss this with your vet.  I know where I am in the world, titre testing dogs is significantly more expensive than vaccination.  This may or may not be the case where you live.

You might also be interested in whether homeopathy works in pets

You could of course simply choose not to vaccinate your dog after the initial course and hope that your dog is one of those who is immune for a very long time, even life.  This I believe though is by far the most risky approach and would not be an approach that I would recommend to any of my clients with canine patients, given what we know at this point in time.

I know this might all sound very complex.  I've tried to make it as easy to understand as possible but the immune system is a complicated beast.  As with most things in pet health, while it would be great to have clear black and white rules, the reality often means that decisions are more often far more complex and nuanced that that.

What do you make of all this and which option do you think is best for your dog?  I'd love to hear your comments below.

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