Whole Dog Journal's Blog December 7, 2015

Titer Tests, and Preventing Overvaccination

Posted at 03:29PM - Comments: (10)

Every year since I adopted Otto from my local shelter, I have sent out his blood to a lab for a “vaccine titer test.” The test I ask for detects circulating antibodies that defend against two canine diseases: distemper and parvovirus. Veterinary immunologists feel that the results of this particular test offers a reliable indication of whether the dog is adequately protected against the diseases he has been vaccinated for, or whether he no longer has a detectible number of antibodies to those diseases in his body.

Otto's titer test results

To make this a tad more complicated than it needs to be, you should also understand that if a dog once had a positive test for these antibodies, but, years later, no longer tests positive, he is probably still protected from those diseases. If he were to be exposed to one of those diseases again, the immune memory cells in his body would almost certainly spark into action and begin to produce antibodies against those diseases again. So, as long as he’s had a positive titer test in the past, he’s likely still protected from disease, even if his current vaccine titer test is negative. However, while most veterinarians today can wrap their heads around a current positive vaccine titer test, and will comfortably “allow” their clients to take a pass on a vaccine “booster” at their dogs’ annual visit as long as they have this positive test result, few are willing to trust a past positive vaccine titer test when it is paired with a current negative. At that point, the vast majority of veterinarians would recommend that a vaccine be administered again, to refresh the dog’s immune memory and stimulate the production of disease antibodies anew.

For this reason, in our opinion, it’s not necessary to run a titer test every year. A few sturdy souls are comfortable with their dog’s past positive results, especially when the dog is healthy and seems to have a vital immune system working for him, and would only run a titer test again if the dog’s health began to decline. Other people choose to run a vaccine titer test every few years, even if only to keep their veterinarian from nagging them to revaccinate.

I run a vaccine titer test on Otto annually, really, for you guys. And for every veterinarian who ever sees Otto, and wonders why I haven’t vaccinated him (except for rabies, which is required by law – and is the only vaccine required by law) since I adopted him on June 16, 2008. I do it for every vet tech who has stamped “OVERDUE” on Otto’s records, and every vet office assistant who sends me annual reminder postcards that Otto is “OVERDUE” for vaccines. (He was vaccinated a lot at the shelter in the couple of months that they had him before I adopted him. Shelter vaccine protocols tend to be much more heavy-handed than what vets suggest for most pet owners, because they take in so many sick animals.)

I do it because I think people (especially those who work in veterinary offices) need to be more educated about vaccines. As the sick dogs who are routinely brought into my shelter demonstrate, not all dogs are adequately vaccinated; many lack basic healthcare. But I think most pet dogs who see veterinarians on a regular basis are overvaccinated.

Don’t get me wrong: I strongly believe that every dog should be properly immunized – and I think vaccine titer tests are the only legitimate way to determine whether their bodies responded properly to the vaccines they received and developed protective antibodies. But vaccinating annually or even semi-annually (every two or three years) for the core vaccines that are not required by law (distemper, parvo, adenovirus) is unnecessary and, in my opinion and that of a growing number of veterinary immunologists and holistic practitioners, potentially harmful.

Anyway, long story short: I had Otto’s vaccine titer test run again recently, and his results indicate he still has a healthy population of antibodies for distemper and parvo, more than seven years since his last vaccine for diseases. He’s just one dog, it’s very anecdotal – but, I’d bet, pretty typical, too.

For more information, see some of our past articles:

Vaccine Titer Tests

Puppy Shots

Time for Vaccines?

Over-Vaccinations - Dog Owners Beware



Vaccine titer tests cost just $25 at the Ronald D Schultz Laboratory, University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. To download a serum submission form, go to the following page, and then click on the link on the right side: Dr. Ronald Schultz Laboratory: Serum Submission Form. 


A FAQ page that tells your veterinarian how much blood to collect and what type of container to put it in is here:


Comments (10)

I'm one of those people who neither revaccinates (other than for rabies) nor runs titers, as I believe my dogs remain protected against all viral diseases for a lifetime (immunity to bacterial diseases such as lepto and Lyme is short-lived). Note that all of my dogs have received multiple vaccinations before I adopted them as adults. You can read more on my DogAware.com website.

In response to a couple of questions:

Yes, feline vaccinations are similar, with most now being recommended every three years instead of annually (or no longer being recommended except in specific situations). You can see current guidelines under Practice Guidelines on the CatVets.com website.

As far as when to go to titers instead of revaccination, this really can be done at any point after any vaccination. If you have a puppy, you can run titers two weeks after giving a vaccine to determine whether it "took" so that you will know if you need to continue to give vaccinations (multiple vaccinations are given to puppies not because they need more than one, but because there's no way to know when the maternal immunity will wear off and allow the puppy's own immune system to respond). Or you could choose to give the full set of puppy vaccinations and then do a titer test after one year to see if the dog needs to be revaccinated. Or you could revaccinate at one year and then run a titer test in three more years to see if another revaccination is needed. It depends on your own comfort level.

Posted by: Mary Straus | December 8, 2015 1:14 PM    Report this comment

to dawnforsythe the collie owner.... get them titer tested before you vaccinate again! to Lillian Anna, the harm in giving unnecessary vaccinations is an overstimulated immune system in your pet, which can lead to many many health problems. Heart worm meds are different from vaccines, and can be harmful if your pet has contracted heart worm disease and then given the preventatives while infected, which is why your vet correctly wants to administer the test before giving you the meds. Whole Dog Journal has published a slew of useful information on titers and vaccinations.... another good resource is the Mercola Healthy Pets site. Happy reading!

Posted by: Bethb | December 8, 2015 12:02 PM    Report this comment

Along these lines ... I was a firm believer in avoiding vaccinations with my stray Eskie mix who I adopted from a local shelter when she was about 3 years old. She suffered from serious dental problems her entire life with me no matter what we tried.

After some research and education of her vet, she qualified for a medical exemption to the rabies vaccine requirement under Wisconsin law. Eighteen states have medical exemptions in lieu of the rabies vaccine. See rabieschallengefund.org, "LATEST UPDATES" tab.

Posted by: LuckyMom | December 8, 2015 11:59 AM    Report this comment

Hi everyone. The distemper/parvo vaccine titer test can be run for $25 at the Ron Schultz Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. We will edit the post above and add a link to a page where you can download a serum submission form, and directions for your veterinarian. You will still have to pay for a blood draw and shipping, but using this lab is much less expensive than many veterinary clinics; my own clinic charges $175 for the same test. They charged me $20 for the extra blood draw as part of Otto's "senior wellness" exam, and I paid for two-day shipping, so my entire cost was about $75. - Nancy Kerns, Editor

Posted by: WDJ Editor Nancy Kerns | December 8, 2015 11:10 AM    Report this comment

Why are titers so darn expensive?? If they were more reasonably priced, more people would do them and there would be a lot more evidence for the vet profession to draw from about when/whether vaccinations are necessary. Could it be that if titers were cheaper and more routine and showed vaccs unnecessary, vets would lose a lot of income from the "overdue" office visits and vaccs?

Posted by: hg | December 8, 2015 11:05 AM    Report this comment

Semi-annually is twice a year...

Posted by: Kitti | December 8, 2015 10:36 AM    Report this comment

When is a dog sufficiently vaccinated enough to start the titers? I have a 2 1/2 yr old collie and a 22-mos old collie -- should I do another year or two of vaccines, or do you think the titers are worth it now?

Posted by: dawnforsythe | December 8, 2015 10:16 AM    Report this comment

VIP clinics provide Titer Testing for $65!

Posted by: In my area of California there are traveling clinics which come usually to pet stores on the weekends and administer vaccinations, heartworm tests and meds etc. You can run a TITERS TEST there for $65. Same test is over $300 from my vet! | December 8, 2015 10:04 AM    Report this comment

Interesting info....my questions: What is the harm in annual vaccinations, even if titer would show not necessary - IF the cost of the titer is exorbitant? Does this apply to cats also? As an inveterate rescuer of both species, on a limited income, with a revolving population always over a dozen, these are important issues. I try to ignore all my vet's "overdue" emails, but then come to the point where they won't dispense, e.g., heartworm meds without the tests.

Posted by: Lillian Anna | December 8, 2015 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for your great explanation of the benefit (and use) of titers. My dog, also, as adopted from a shelter at one-year-old and, I suspect, received more than enough vaccines during that first year in addition to the "boosters" they gave at the shelter. I have not titered due to the high cost of titers, but am encouraged to do so now that Gabe is 6 years-old.

Posted by: Robin Chaffey | December 8, 2015 9:49 AM    Report this comment

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