Whole Dog Journal's Blog April 13, 2018

Smart Vaccination for Dogs is NOT "Anti-Vaccination"

Posted at 04:05PM - Comments: (17)

Last week, I wrote a long post about the fact that my dog Otto is getting older and the idea of vaccinating him for the fifth time with the legally required rabies vaccine makes me nervous.

I mentioned in that post that I would talk about the other core vaccines (distemper and parvovirus) at a later time; that time is now!

As I said in last week’s blog post, Otto was vaccinated a lot when he was brought to the shelter from which I later adopted him. He was brought into the shelter as a stray pup on May 7, 2008. He was estimated to be from four to six months old, and, like all shelter dogs, was vaccinated upon admission. He was given a five-way vaccination (distemper, adenovirus-type 2, coronavirus, parainfluenza, and parvovirus) and a separate three-way vaccination (adenovirus-type 2, parainfluenza, and bordetella) made by a different company.

mixed breed dog otto

On May 14, he was given a rabies vaccine.

On May 17, he was given the five-way vaccine again. And again on May 27. And again on June 10. Yow! 

Yes, that’s a fairly heavy-handed vaccination protocol – but not out of the ordinary for a puppy or young dog brought into a crowded open-admission shelter, particularly one that takes in dogs and puppies who actually have parvovirus (and, much less commonly, thank goodness, distemper). 

Why would they vaccinate him so many times? Mostly, because of his age; adult dogs are likely to receive one, or at most, two multi-disease vaccinations. Puppies and young dogs of an uncertain age are given more. Blame it on their moms! (A little joke, there.)

Maternal Antibody Interference in Young Puppies

I’ve explained maternal interference in past Whole Dog Journal articles. The shortest explanation: If a mother dog has been vaccinated (or was previously infected with and recovered from) a disease such as parvo or distemper, she will have antibodies to those diseases circulating in her bloodstream. When she has puppies, the antibodies find their way into her colostrum, the so-called “first milk” (which is not really milk) that her puppies will drink when they nurse for the first couple of days. Her antibodies will circulate in the puppies’ blood, protecting the pups from those diseases for a number of weeks.

How many weeks? It varies! The maternal antibody protection (also sometimes referred to as “passive immunity”) will depend on the mother’s antibody levels, the amount of colostrum she was able to produce, the amount of colostrum that any given puppy received, and the puppy’s own health and vitality. If the puppy is exposed to disease when the mother’s antibodies are still circulating in his body, the antibodies will recognize the disease antigen and neutralize it. Zap! Pow! Thanks, Mom!

But if the puppy is given a vaccine in the same time range, while the mother’s antibodies are still circulating, Zap! Pow! The mother’s antibodies in the puppy’s blood recognize the disease antigen in the vaccine – even if it’s a modified or “killed” antigen – and neutralize it, too. It’s as if the puppy was never vaccinated. As long as his mom’s antibodies are in circulation, his body won’t have a chance to respond by mounting his own immune response to the disease antigen in the vaccine.

But at some point, the mother’s love fades – er, I mean, the maternal antibodies “fade.” That’s the scientific phrase for slowly disappear, and when the maternal antibodies disappear, the puppy is vulnerable to disease – but his own immune system will be ready to respond to disease antigen by producing protective antibodies of his own. That exact moment is when we most want to give him a dose of disease antigen that had been designed to make the puppy’s body respond by making protective antibodies to that disease without actually having the ability to cause the disease – in other words, a vaccine.

Vaccines contain disease antigens that have been either weakened, killed, or modified in some way so it can’t actually reproduce and make the dog ill, but still resembles the disease antigen enough to inspire the dog to create antibodies that will recognize and neutralize any living, virulent disease antigen it encounters later in life. 

The problem is, there isn’t any practical, cost-effective way to determine exactly when the mother’s antibodies had faded enough to leave the puppy vulnerable / ready to vaccinate; it can happen any time between five and 18 weeks!

The conventional answer to the problem has been to vaccinate the puppy every couple or few weeks in an effort to protect him as soon as possible after the maternal antibodies fade and before he might encounter real disease antigens. In a shelter environment, encountering real disease antigens is likely, so puppies are vaccinated way more frequently than we would suggest for a puppy who is safely sequestered at home.

vaccinations for dogs

Vaccine Titer Tests for Proving A Dog's Immunity

So that’s why Otto was vaccinated four times for “core” diseases (parvo and distemper) at the shelter before I adopted him on June 16, 2008. He was young enough that they thought it was possible that he might still have circulating maternal antibodies.

In the past 10 years, though, he has not been vaccinated for those diseases… Not one “booster.”

(Is this a good time to mention that there is no such thing as a “booster”? When your dog – not mine! – is given a vaccine “booster,” he’s receiving the same vaccine in the same dosage that he was given the first or any other time.)

But I know that he’s protected from the diseases for which he was so generously vaccinated for disease, because in early 2010, I had a “vaccine titer test” for those diseases run, and the results were positive.

In a vaccine titer test, a lab tests a dog’s blood for circulating antibodies to the diseases of interest. In dogs, we are mostly interested in the three most deadly contagious diseases: parvovirus, distemper, and rabies.

When an adult dog (or a puppy whose mother’s immunity has faded) is vaccinated, his body should mount an immune response to the weakened, killed, or modified disease antigen, and begin producing specific antibodies to those diseases. A vaccine titer test looks for and quantifies the antibodies. When this technology was newer, there was a lot of research and inquiry about what levels of these disease antibodies should be considered “protective” and different immunology experts suggested different numbers. Today, any positive number is considered protective, because it demonstrates that the dog’s body recognized the disease antigen in question, and produced antibodies to the specific disease in response. The fact that the antibodies for a particular disease are present in any amount in the dog’s body means that his immune system will know what to do if it encounters that specific disease again.

Sometimes, over time, the level of these antibodies in the dog’s blood might get lower – or drop altogether to zero. As long as a previous test showed that the antibodies were there in the past, the dog is still very likely protected, thanks to his immune memory cells, whose job it is to just “remember” what to do in case of a new exposure to disease antigen: yell out to the immune system, “Quick! Get those antibodies back into production, STAT!”

Every veterinarian should know all this. Every veterinary assistant and registered veterinary technician should, too. But convincing them that your dog’s past positive vaccine titer test results mean he is still protected against disease is a long, hard battle in some cases.

When you do come across an educated vet or technician who logs your dog’s past positive vaccine titer test results into his chart with a look of recognition and understanding, it’s absolutely sublime. It happened to me once J

In most cases, when they are asking about your dog’s vaccination history, and you give them vaccine titer test results, they will look at you like you are insane, or stupid, or “one of those clients,” or all three.

In some cases, you might get a dubious look from a technician, and then a frankly hostile veterinarian who dives right into battle. “Have you ever seen a dog who is dying of distemper?” a veterinarian once asked me, by way of introduction. “I have, and it’s not pretty. I don’t know why you’d even mess around with something like this,” she told me. When I told the veterinarian that Otto had been well vaccinated in his first year, and that I had current, positive vaccine titer test results, she spent a good five minutes lecturing me about the fact that that scientists don’t even know antibody level should be considered protective, and that cell-mediated immunity (an immune response that does not involve antibodies) is poorly understood and not a sure thing. (Yeah, that was my last visit to that clinic. We were there, by the way, for help investigating Otto’s chronic springtime cough, not for an argument about vaccines!)

Given the resistance mounted by a veterinarian who clearly did know things about vaccines and immunology when faced with current, positive vaccine titer test results, I can’t even imagine arguing with a veterinarian about a years-old positive vaccine titer test result, either with or without a current negative vaccine titer test result. That’s one of the reasons I have paid for a vaccine titer test six times so far, and will do so again. Otto has showed positive results for antibodies to parvo and distemper in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015, and 2017 – despite not being vaccinated for these diseases since 2008. Today, the weight of this evidence has sufficed with Otto’s current veterinarians (though I still get “overdue” vaccination reminder cards from both the current practice where these veterinarians work and from the last clinic I stopped going to).

Again: It’s really not necessary to pay for a vaccine titer test to prove your dog’s level of protection, but it helps the educated people who are accustomed to asking about your dog’s vaccination history (trainers, groomers, boarding facility owners) feel better about your dog’s “overdue” vaccination status.

Last point: Just because I don’t want my dog OVERVACCINATED doesn’t mean I am anti-vaccination – far from it. I am grateful ­– that’s actually too weak of a word – for vaccination technology. I haveseen a dog dying of distemper, my own puppy, when I was a young child in the late 1960s and distemper vaccination was not yet a standard of practice. And I have cleaned up vomit and bloody diarrhea from shelter puppies dying of parvovirus, and held them as they were euthanized. Both events were traumatizing, knowing that a simple vaccine could have saved them. But that doesn’t have anything to do with blindly vaccinating dogs who are already protected from disease, just so someone can check off a box.

Comments (17)

It was a terrible argument with my vet---who is an excellent vet---over using the test for titer over vaccination to test for antibodies. I love my vet....he asked for proof and I printed out Dr Dodds protocol. So the first year rolled around and we drew blood for the test. He called a week later and said, with the surprise evident in his voice, that her titers were WAY up over the minimum threshold required.

Posted by: Mel Blacke | May 6, 2018 5:23 AM    Report this comment

One subscriber commented that her dog only had a one year rabies shot at the pound . In actuality they are all the same so she needs to ask for an updated certificate ! She may need to get Torres though to convince them to do that !

Posted by: Redskye | April 21, 2018 8:55 PM    Report this comment

Just curious..... I have a 7.5-month-old mixed breed puppy projected to weigh 35-40 pounds as an adult. He currently weighs 38 pounds. He got all the puppy shots -- lepto, , distemper, parvo, etc. and a 1-year rabies vaccine shortly after we got him at 14 weeks. I spoke to one of my vet's many techs and asked her about titer testing. She said they have no problem with doing it "but not on puppies, so he'll have to get a full battery of vaccines again in December." And at what age are they no longer "puppies?" Another of the many techs told me the vet recommends that I wean him at 10 months (in July) from "puppy food" to adult food. What do all y'all think about that?

Posted by: Lulukay | April 21, 2018 11:54 AM    Report this comment

I had a vet, many years ago, give my wolfhound Sully, a Leptospirosis vaccination in his back left thigh, months later, he developed a soft spot there. It kept getting larger (about the size of a dime) and eventually opened up so that I could see all they way to the muscle! Long story short, I took him to my new vet, and they surgically removed a larger (and I mean MUCH larger) area of the surrounding tissue. The vet that gave him the shot in the first place, refused to acknowledge ANY suggestion that the vaccination was the cause.

Posted by: redjenn | April 20, 2018 10:39 AM    Report this comment

We brought our 12 week old irish wolfhound puppy into our vets office and discussed spacing out her vaccines. Well, at 15 weeks, her vet decided to do whatever he wanted and gave her 6 vaccines at once. Flash forward a few weeks, she developed severe swelling her in leg (the same that she was vaccinated in) and was running a high fever. She was put on antibiotics and a few weeks after that developed boils and her leg fractured. After spending weeks in the hospital on intravenous antibiotics, we were almost faced with amputation. Our young 20 week old puppy almost lost her leg due to this vets carelessness. Thankfully we found the right antibiotic for her and her leg was saved. However to this day her tibia is stunted by about 6 cms and has alot of scarring. I still don't consider myself antivaccine but I think it's super important to find a vet you trust and who doesn't have a superiority complex. Unfortunately New York State doesn't hold him accountable and we were unable to Perdue litagation since no other vet who treated her would agree he was liable.

Posted by: Sklos27 | April 20, 2018 8:52 AM    Report this comment

I have 4 dogs that I bred (1-9 yrs, 2-6 yrs, 1- 2 yrs.) I gave my parvo and distemper vaccines at 10 weeks and 14 weeks when they were puppies. I titer test every 3 years and all of my dogs have had the antibodies in their blood. I have been titer testing for over 20 years and I am very fortunate to live close enough to Dr. Dodds for titer testing. I require all my puppy people to follow this protocol. I am not anti-vaccine just anti-over vaccination.

Posted by: Purpledog | April 19, 2018 9:40 PM    Report this comment

My chow mix, who we believe is around eight (she was picked up as a stray) has been with us since 2012. She had her vaccinations in February, including the first rabies in three years. About 10 days later, I noticed one night she was having trouble climbing the stairs. The next morning, she had more trouble with her back legs, and had an infection in both eyes. Rushed her to the vet (so glad ours is open on Sundays!). They ran every blood test, all normal. She was put on antibiotics and steroids are recovered pretty quickly. The vet said it could have been a immune reaction to the vaccines, although she never had a problem in the past. Will be having a serious discussion with the vet before she gets any next year!

Posted by: Rainy's Mom | April 19, 2018 8:17 PM    Report this comment

I agree with all of you but years ago, I didn't know what I do now. Once I began seeing my holistic vet, I learned I began learning the dangers of over vaccination. She has seen far too many dogs with vaccinitis who are ill because their immune systems have been completely destroyed and I have been in attendance when she has diagnosed them. I have also seen cancer develop at vaccination sites and have witnessed dogs die within several weeks of receiving their vaccines.
Where I live, proof of rabies vaccine is required to obtain a dog license, but my vet has told me she will write a note stating that my dog's immune system is too compromised to receive a rabies shot. Whether it stands up, I don't know because usually they have passed away by license renewal time.
I adopt older dogs, usually over the age of 10 years and I'm sure they have been vaccinated up the ying yang. Several of them already did have compromised immune systems. As 10 is the general life span of my dogs, none of them receive a vaccination once they come to me and several have lived to the ripe old age of 15. Unfortunately, most have been vaccinated against rabies and who knows what else before I am able to pick them up at the shelters from which I adopt them.
Whenever I have to go to a "regular" vet, I am always bombarded with the vaccination issue and I've always been able to withstand the assault.

Titers is a good idea if I ever have to board a dog again. My previous boarding kennel owner has died and she never demanded anything from me because she knew my dogs were healthy, but if the occasion occurs,
I wonder what the new owner will say about it.

Posted by: Holly 1 | April 19, 2018 4:29 PM    Report this comment

I needed to read this, for years I lived in Va. On a very secluded 113 acre property with over ten dogs-all got their first set of shots including rabies. After that emergencies only which (thank God)were quite rare. I too have gone through the heart ache of losing pups from parvo&distemper, it's horrifying! But being over vaccinated is as scary to me. My pets are family not livestock
Thanks for reaffirming my intuitive decisions.

Posted by: Sir Finnegan of Fenwick | April 19, 2018 3:12 PM    Report this comment

In July 2017, we adopted a large yellow lab/golden retriever mix approx. 4.5 yrs old. . The family that found him and brought him to the shelter stated that in the overnight period that they had him in their home, he had multiple seizures.
He was brought into the shelter as a stray so he was immediately bombarded with vaccines. He had off and on seizure activity while at shelter while waiting to be adopted. The shelter vet ran a few tests and when no physical injury etc. could explain his seizures, the blanket diagnosis of "epilepsy" was given. He was then put on phenobarbital to control them. After several weeks, he was adopted by a young family but when he had a seizure on the first night in his new home, the family panicked and rushed him to the emergency vet clinic. He had a battery of tests done and again was diagnosed with epilepsy. The family decided they did not want to deal with it and returned him to the shelter the next day. A few weeks later we adopted him and were given his thick stack of medical paperwork. Our vet read it over and decided he should remain on the medication indefinitely. When I looked over the paperwork myself with a fine toothed comb, I found a tiny notation from the emergency vet written in between the lines of his diagnosis. It read, "possible reaction to multiple vaccines given". Our dog has never had a single seizure since we adopted him. In fact, we also weaned him off of the medication to save his liver and other organs from permanent damage. Again, no seizures. We believe he does not have epilepsy at all but maybe had a severe reaction to stress, food allergy, etc... I'm concerned about his next vet visit because the shelter only gave him a 1 year Rabies vacc. rather than the standard 3 year. We won't be able to get his dog license renewed without proof of the updated vaccination.

Posted by: SueW | April 19, 2018 3:05 PM    Report this comment

Doguemom, check out the third from last paragraph- she has done titers a total of 6 years including last year. My Golden got titered annually his entire adult life, and never needed a booster. Rabies was the only shot I had to do, I titered for rabies, just out of curiosity, at age 10, and he had immunity, still got the shot, but had those antibodies. He died at the ripe old age of 15. The only dhlpp he ever got was as a puppy and when we did therapy work at a hospital, and it was required. I think if I can prove my dog doesn’t have the disease, I shouldn’t have to give him a shot. But my young dogs will always have limited shots schedule, still the same shots, just not all in the same day. Parvo, Listeriaall of these are major causes of canine death. I mirror Nancy’s thoughts.

Posted by: lclass003 | April 19, 2018 2:41 PM    Report this comment

According to my ( very honest) veterinarian, most vets make the most money vaccinating. That's why they are so pushy.
When I had a titer test done for my dogs, a former vet, I used at that time, got actually pissed off and tried to push me into vaccinating my dogs instead.
The holistic vet I have now told me that most pets are protected for life after their first year of vaccinations. Sadly we still have to get the Rabies shots every 3 years by law, which is, according to many tests done, unnecessary.

Posted by: ciscabdx | April 19, 2018 12:30 PM    Report this comment

My girls are 3 (chocolate and black labs) and they were into the vet for their yearly checkups today. Both are really healthy, have lots of energy and really beautiful coats. I was armed for the vaccination talk but my vet just said to me “you don’t want any more vaccinations...right”. Right! We had discussed this before. I had a golden retriever who died at 8 who was vaccinated for everything, every year. He was also put on Interceptor year round in case he came into contact with whatever might be out there! I was guilted into this because “you don’t want your getting sick, do you?” You will never convince me that all those chemicals didn’t contribute to him getting cancer before his eighth birthday.

Posted by: Phant0000m | April 19, 2018 12:04 PM    Report this comment

Although I work for a company that sells pet products, as well as vaccinations, I always recommend people have serious conversation with their veterinarian prior to vaccinating. When my personal "population" was all past the age of 5, my vet starting pulling titers ever other year, at my request. I was not willing to over vaccinate my crew. All of my big dogs reached 14, 15 or 16 years of age before crossing over the bridge. Now that my "oldest" is turning 5, I will repeat the protocol with my younger group. Thank you for your honest post!

Posted by: Primmy911 | April 19, 2018 11:52 AM    Report this comment

Had me until her 2010 last titer test: this was good. But she lacks (or knows but willing to take risk) the knowledge that 1 titer test is not adequate.

She uses the word “likely” to still have antibodies to fight disease. Which is true. However dog owners need to know what “likely” means. It means approx 5-10 dogs out of 100 will NOT have enough titer to fight disease. Especially if the strain is very virulent

If YOUR dog is one of those 5-10 is that risk acceptable to you? If it is. Great. But if not you need to revaccinate. And if your dog has allergies. Or gets other illnesses a lot. This means lower immune system. Which this method relies on strong immune system to respond in time.

I titer every 2-3 yrs. and if titer falls below 1000 I revaccinate. Which usually means at least 1 more shot. Yes I’m conservative. But I’ve had a dog die of parvo. That was vaccinated and tittered. I want my odds more 1:100. Which a titer of 1000 will put you in that ballpark. .

Posted by: Doguemom | April 19, 2018 10:30 AM    Report this comment

Next time ask the vet if they are vaccinated for Rabies, then ask how many boosters they have had. The answer will very likely be zero.
I am a vet, was vaccinated for rabies in 1985 and have been titered every few years since. It is actually recommended NOT to get a booster unless actually exposed.
Do you get boosters for measles, mumps, etc.? NO...
'Nuff said.

Posted by: Kitti | April 19, 2018 9:42 AM    Report this comment

I am in the middle of this now. My boys are coming on 3 and its vaccine time again. My boarding kennel is requiring updated records. I am fortunate that after a discussion with the owner - they have agreed to accept a titer test in lieu of re-vaccinating. Hopefully this new idea and conservative vaccine protocol will become common with all in the pet world. I am also lucky that my State (West VA) accepts Titer for rabies. There is a new in office titer test (vaccicheck) from Pfizer that my vet has agreed to try. Hoping that makes it more available for others. I am not anti-vaccine - my child all got vaccines and I get flu shot. Just want to do what's right.

Posted by: BusyVP | April 19, 2018 8:55 AM    Report this comment

New to Whole Dog Journal? Register for Free!

Already Registered?
Log In