Whole Dog Journal's Blog March 9, 2017

Titer Tests, and Preventing Overvaccination

Posted at 03:29PM - Comments: (23)

Every year since I adopted Otto from my local shelter (on June 16, 2008), 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.

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. 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 EIGHT years since his last vaccine for diseases. He’s just one dog, it’s very anecdotal – but, I’d bet, pretty typical, too.

A note about where I get this done:

To run the vaccine titer test, I use the Companion Animal Vaccine and Immuno Diagnostic Service Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine. This is the lab founded by Ronald Schultz, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading authorities on animal vaccines. The lab charges just $25 for the distemper/parvo vaccine titer test.

I had my veterinarian collect a blood sample and prepare it as per the directions posted on the lab’s website. My veterinarian charged $30 for this. Had I gone to the vet just for this reason alone, I would have had a pay for an exam, too, but I had actually taken Otto in to have a lump checked, so I’m not including the exam fee cost here.

I paid to have it overnighted to Wisconsin; I could have sent it two-day, but I had missed the cutoff time, and it had to be there Friday morning, so I paid a premium at the post office: $28.75.

Total: $83.75. That seemed like a lot, until I called the vet to find out what they charge if they send the blood sample to their usual lab: $161! That’s just nuts.

For more information, see some of our past articles:

"Vaccine Titer Tests for Dogs" (June 2014)

"Puppy Shots," (March 2014)

"Time to Vaccinate the Dog?" (March 2013)

"Beware of Over-Vaccinating Your Dog," (August 2010)


dog titer test results

Otto's titer test results

Note: this blog was originally posted on December 8, 2015.

Comments (23)

I strongly recommend "The Age of Big Vet" in Jan 9 issue of Bloomberg Business Week. This is very revealing. A long article but there are a number of answers to many of our questions. Avoid the "Big Vets" whenever possible.

Posted by: Greenman | March 15, 2017 1:58 PM    Report this comment

The chief reason that I went to a breeder for my first purebred dog was because I knew many people with shelter dogs that suffered HORRIBLE health because my sport dog goes to multiple environments. I keep a rabies vaccine and get puppy shots on all of my dogs but pretty much stop vaccinating after that and all of my dogs live to be really old with relatively few health problems. problems....young dogs with allergies, skin conditions, bone problems, cancers--my spaniel's breeder titers her dogs. I intend to do the same with the puppy I got from her. I don't get a lepto vaccine because they are problematic. A rabies vaccine is demanded by law and a kennel cough vaccine is important to me. I have an older dog who just gets the rabies vaccine and a kennel cough vaccine.

Posted by: Mel Blacke | March 13, 2017 8:16 AM    Report this comment

I adopt only rescued dogs, usually over the age of 10. I expect they all had shots before and are vaccinated up the ying yang at the shelters. Because vets believe titers are unreliable for past years, they still want to vaccinate as their annual money maker. However, my dogs never receive another vaccine from me. I've seen far too many dogs with vaccinitis (is that the way you spell over- vaccination?) and these dogs' immune systems are virtually decimated. My vet always write a note stating my dogs cannot have any shot, including rabies, because the immune system is no longer working. Yes, they could possible come in contact with rabies, but I and my vet strongly believe that a dog's vaccine lasts as long as a human vaccine. Also, I use natural worming, parasite and flea protection as well, because I do not believe in putting poison in and on my dog's body. If the meds kill fleas and worms, they harm the host too. There is a host of parasites and around my area, but I haven't seen a worm, parasite or flea since I started using these natural products. Organic farmers use the same products on their animals.

Posted by: Hlevin | March 12, 2017 2:34 PM    Report this comment

No titers for me. I'm not convinced that over-vaccination is as serious or as common a malady as espoused on the internet. I've vaccinated all my dogs on schedule and have never had one that died of anything other than old age or an accident. Not falling into anti-vax hysteria.

Posted by: Bluetree | March 12, 2017 2:11 PM    Report this comment

My dog remained immunized for her entire thirteen and a half years of life with just her initial puppy vaccinations. Even though the yearly titer tests were expensive, it brought me comfort knowing she was protected and I wasn't unnecessarily compromising her health with additional vaccinations.

Posted by: Bgonsalves | March 12, 2017 12:11 PM    Report this comment

This is an interesting and informative article and I appreciate you posting this, Nancy. But I must correct something: semi-annually means twice a year, not once every few years. You should have said biennially...notice that it's not biannually, which is a word that means either twice a year or once every two years. English, huh?

Posted by: JG | March 12, 2017 10:52 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for adding the info regarding memory cells and immunity. This is sometimes overlooked or omitted when looking at titer results. And after significant research on the topic, I agree that once immune, always immune. No need for further vaccinations. Great article!

Posted by: laurh | March 11, 2017 3:19 PM    Report this comment

Is there any actual science about over vaccination?

Posted by: MattJ | March 10, 2017 1:15 PM    Report this comment

Thank you for sharing this article. A lot of diseases are now being researched as due to over vaccination. We love our furbabies to the moon and back. Our family would never over vaccinate. Our dogs will be having titre tests.

Posted by: MH | March 10, 2017 4:26 AM    Report this comment

Sorry. I have NO intention of having 'titre test' for my dogs. From decades of experience I trust the vaccination schedules that we used to have (puppy vaccinations and then maybe a booster at 12 months).
Titre tests are at least as intrusive as vaccinations and (I presume) at least as expensive. I feel that this is merely another means of parting dog owners from their money :-(

Posted by: Jenny H | March 9, 2017 4:07 PM    Report this comment

Does anyone know of any place to get titers done in reasonably in Ontario Canada?

Posted by: Brantford dog lover | March 9, 2017 3:20 PM    Report this comment

In 2015 we did our first titer and the sample was sent to the same laboratory. The vet does clinics at various locations and charges $55.00, which is the total charge. If there were more opportunities like this for pet owners, many more would probably participate. We live in central Iowa and found out by word of mouth through other kennel club members. Very good information to have!

Posted by: Cocker lover | March 9, 2017 11:48 AM    Report this comment

Really appreciated your article on titering. I too have titered for many years. Last year I was told by my current vet that the parvo on both dogs was down to 20% so they should both have parvo vaccines. I called my vet where I used to live (hours away), and he told me as long as they showed immunity, they are immune and covered. He also shared that their parvo percentages may go up the following year, when tested. We will see in April.
Our state does allow yearly rabies titering. I try to share this will all dog lovers, as it can add years to the lives of our dogs.

Posted by: Loved reading your article on vaccinating. I too have titered for years. Do not know if it is the state you live in, but in the state of Ohio, titering for rabies is accepted. | March 9, 2017 10:35 AM    Report this comment

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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