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