Whole Dog Journal's Blog March 4, 2013

Vaccine Titer Tests: What They Can and Can’t Do

Posted at 01:44PM - Comments: (26)

One of the tests I asked for at Otto’s annual wellness exam last week was a vaccine titer test. These blood tests are able to detect antibodies that the dog has produced in response to a vaccination. Such positive results can confirm that the dog responded in the desired manner to the vaccination and is now protected against the diseases he was vaccinated for.

However, many of us owners who ask (and pay) for titer tests year after year are not doing this to assure themselves that their dogs are protected against disease. In my case (and that of many of my friends), we are paying $50 to $100 a year for the test to prove to our veterinarians that our dogs are adequately protected against disease – to ward off the overzealous promotion of what we know to be unneeded (and thus excessive) vaccinations. Because once we have the first positive titer test results, it’s almost certain that he is protected for life from the diseases he was vaccinated for. The only exceptions to this are rare.

I adopted Otto from a shelter in June 2008. He was picked up as a stray two months prior, and was estimated to be about 7-8 months old. During his two-month stay in the shelter, he had received four combination vaccinations (for distemper, adenovirus Type-2, coronavirus, parainfluenza, and parvovirus); another vaccination for adenovirus type 2 (combined with parainfluenza and bordetella); and a rabies vaccine. The only vaccines he’s received since then are rabies vaccines: a 3-year vaccine given in April 2009, and another one given in late March 2012.

I brought Otto to a local veterinarian in spring of 2010 for a heartworm test and wellness exam. The vet was adamant that Otto also needed “booster” vaccines. The vet had been recommended to me as the best one in my town, so this was a bit discouraging. (So-called “boosters” do not, in fact, “boost” immunity. If the dog has wither circulating antibodies against disease OR immune “memory cells” -- cell-mediated immunity that has developed following a vaccine against or infection from the disease -- he’s got as much immunity as he CAN have against those diseases.) I asked the veterinarian if he would be content with the results of a vaccine titer test; if the test showed that Otto still had circulating antibodies to the vaccines he had received at the shelter, would he be satisfied that Otto did not need further vaccines? He said he would. So I paid for a titer test, which came back, as I expected, with a nice healthy positive result.

In spring 2011, however, I received a postcard from that veterinarian’s office suggesting that Otto was not just “due” but “OVERDUE” for a laundry list of vaccines. So this was going to be an annual argument, it looked like. I strongly believe in annual wellness examinations and blood tests, but I don’t think my healthy dog need to be vaccinated with anything but the state-required rabies vaccine again. I decided to seek out a new veterinarian – someone younger and, I hoped, more comfortable with the idea that Otto’s previous vaccinations and apparent good health meant he wouldn’t need further vaccinations for years, if ever!

I found a highly recommended veterinarian the next town over, a college town with a lot of progressive, younger doctors. He agreed that Otto was probably protected by his previous vaccines – but wanted to repeat the titer test to “prove” this. I figured if it helped him feel more comfortable NOT recommending further vaccines, it would be a small price to pay to have access to this larger, better equipped, more modern clinic. We ran another titer test; nice and positive. Otto and later Tito saw the same vet later in the year for unrelated issues, and I was mostly pleased with those experiences.

In spring 2012, when I made an appointment at this clinic for Otto’s annual wellness visit and a heartworm test, despite requesting the vet who saw Otto the previous year, I was given an appointment with one of the (older) practice owners. And she wanted to talk to me about vaccines. She felt strongly that a positive result to a titer test was not enough to prove that Otto was protected against disease. She told me that dogs whose titer tests reveal circulating antibodies may lack cell-mediated immunity (adequate T-cells) and be unable to defend themselves against illness. I have heard that, I responded, “but isn’t that rare?” She agreed that it was. “And can’t dogs with past positive titer tests be protected by cell-mediated immunity even if their later titer tests don’t show any circulating antibodies?” I asked. She agreed that this can be true – that previously vaccinated dogs may lack circulating antibodies, but retain immune memory cells that will “remember” experiencing a disease antigen, and mount a vigorous immune response if challenged with disease. But she wanted to stress that there are rare cases where dogs with nice high levels of circulating antibodies but a dysfunctional cell-mediated immune response failed to respond properly to a disease challenge. So her takeaway point was this: You should vaccinate your dog again, regardless of titer test results.

Back to the drawing board -- looking for a new vet.

I recently found a young doctor at a clinic in my town. Before I made an appointment for Otto’s annual wellness exam and heartworm test, I asked the practice receptionist if I could have some time to talk to the vet and find out whether he was comfortable with the idea that Otto was not in need of any vaccinations. Later, talking to the vet on the phone, he said he would be willing to accept this – but would feel most comfortable with a current titer test showing a positive antibody result. Well, beggars can’t be choosers. I agreed, and the test came back positive. So far, so good.

It might seem crazy, paying as much as $100 for an unnecessary test annually in an attempt to prove that my dog doesn’t need a $20 vaccination. But I need a local vet who will work with me, happily, without feeling that “overdue vaccines” are putting my dog at risk. I spent 14 years with another dog whose severe allergies may well have been caused and worsened by the completely unnecessary annual vaccines I didn’t know enough to refuse in his first five or six years. I’m not going to risk putting another dog through years of suffering like that to save a few bucks. If the titer test is the price of a good local vet’s cooperation, I’m willing to pay it.

For a very thorough article on canine vaccinations and titer tests, see "Beware of Over-Vaccinating Your Dog".

Comments (24)

Question, forgive my ignorance:
Do the titer tests "double" as a CBC test too ... do I only get antibody analysis or do I get other blood values too?

Question 2: Are annual CBC tests of any value for historical and trend analysis?

I had a dog die that was only 2 years old, and we don't know why... other than a possible reaction to Trifexis or meningitis type infection... and I'm now re-evaluating the whole vaccination (and flea prevention) regiment. I'm on Maui, apparently Lepto can be an issue in some areas, and Parvo too. Heartworm I hear mixed things about risk here, and I'm not in an area that is prone to it (it's very dry), but I feel comfortable with monthly pills on that.

Posted by: ShawnK | May 24, 2016 8:44 PM    Report this comment

An older article but still relevant today. Where we are in MA, you can't get a rabies tag with a titer. However, with a letter from the vet citing health reasons, your pet can be exempted from the rabies vaccination and you can get a dog license and that is what the dog is mandated to have. A titer is not required, just a vet letterbut we have been having titers done every other year for about 8 years now (we have rescues who have very serious medical problems). Cheapest way we have found is to send to Hemopet. The big commercial labs (Antech, Idexx) charge a fortune, even though they ALL send to Kansas State. Note: In MA, not only dogs but cats and ferrets have to have rabies vaccinations as well.

Posted by: Cathy RW | August 30, 2014 11:52 PM    Report this comment

For those who do need to vaccinate, I recently read a very interesting study where vaccination sites were moved to the tail of the pet. Apparently, it was easier to administer, and if your pet is the 1/10,000 who has a carcinoma reaction to the site, a tail, unlike a shoulder, can be removed to prevent spreading. I plan to ask for a titer test, but for rabies, will ask to have it done on my pets' tails. I've been working with the same vet for many years, and don't expect a big row...maybe a smile.

Posted by: Ravenhill | May 29, 2014 5:50 PM    Report this comment

As a vet, I feel the need to point something out to those of you who accuse my colleagues of greed. For a vaccine, the vet charges a far lower price than she does for a titer test. The profit margin is also higher, yes - vets pass on the cost of shipping and proper storage of vaccines administered to your pet, as well as the needle, syringe, and professional time to give the vaccine. However, the overall profit is still higher for a titer test - the vet increases the price to cover materials and professional time to draw blood, as well as to properly store and then ship the blood to the lab, and then again to cover a professional evaluation of blood results. So vets motivated purely by greed will happily perform titer testing, early and often. I realize that some of my colleagues, too many, are not working hard enough to do their research, and it is frankly unacceptable that some vets are still recommending annual vaccines. But I can guarantee you that the majority of vets out there are making recommendations that they feel are in the best interest of your pet's health and your safety. If you disagree with those recommendations, it is your responsibility to be your pet's advocate, and make your preferences clear. I believe most of my colleagues will respect your opinion if you are clear and respectful, and if they don't treat you the same way, yes - find another vet. I am a TCM and chiropractic vet.

My primary care physician practices full-on Western medicine. I go to see her, she tells me what she thinks I should do, we discuss, maybe even argue a bit - then I make my decision. I appreciate that she is passionate and eloquent, and that she offers a dissenting opinion. She challenges me, which keeps me thoughtful about my own opinions. I believe this is good medicine, no matter what the species.

Posted by: TessaLooVet | February 19, 2014 10:00 AM    Report this comment

Try $200.00 for the titer!!! It's just plain ridiculous and very expensive...but I wouldn't have it any other way. My vet is wonderful and she is totally on board with limited vaccines.

Posted by: Jill K | February 19, 2014 7:20 AM    Report this comment

I totally enjoyed this article and agree wholeheartedly with the author. My dog also has severe allergies and I have wondered if vaccines contributed. The last time she received vaccines (in 2012) she almost died and spent three days in intensive care. I have educated myself since that time and we draw titers now.

Posted by: Traci W | February 18, 2014 5:59 PM    Report this comment

I can so relate to these comments and to Nancy's story. It is maddening. I found a good vet, and then they sort of threaten that they won't run the risk of your dog being in their practice/building if not vaccinated...for instance for the spay procedure. They can't take the risk of staff being bitten or other dogs etc. I remember that line...I still get the vax reminders (printed on every invoice every time for a nail trim:-) and I wish they would also make a point of putting in the information of when the TITERS were last done.
Frankly, I don't know what the law says where I'm living, but I do an ANNUAL rabies titer. I have a blood draw done for that and heartworm at the same time. There was a bit of an issue the first time I asked, but that seems to have been resolved. I guess they figured getting compensated for an office visit and blood draw was better than losing the revenue totally.
I so want to like and respect my vet practice, and appreciate they have costs and overhead, but it still is hard to swallow that they want to make money...and which is more their focus: our pet's well-being or their survival? Of note is that while Jean Dodds and Hemopet charge a very reasonable fee to do a heartworm check, the vet was charging about FOUR times that. Still, I allowed the VET to run the test actually so they WOULD make some income off of me, since I appreciated them drawing the sample for the rabies titer.
Nickle and diming those of us who have seen expenses increase and income stay the same doesn't go over well with me. Although it is my choice to drive a great distance to go to the vet, when I needed some additional pills (which were being sold at a significantly inflated price) they charged an additional $5 for shipping. For something they mailed for $3 or less. That irks me, but I told myself hey, they had to buy the envelope, and staff labor to put them in the bottle...etc.
If they want our business they will need to respect us. They now are encouraging (and even found the money to do postcards and mail them) wellness checks every 6 months! Because our pets cannot speak and it may be an illness well-advanced before symptoms show. So they can run profitable lab work every 6 months? I am SO sick of the scare tactics to manipulate us. THEY can elevate their prices and we have no choice...I had a pup who developed an apparent blood disorder, too soon for a definitive diagnosis. But I wouldn't tolerate her being mistreated, and so we saw several vets in the process, and all were only too ready to run their own set of lab tests.
I am beginning to hate most vets as much as I hate greedy MD's. But there are exceptions.

We are our little one's advocates, and thanks to info from Whole Dog we can do a better job of it.

I do the annual rabies titer btw, only because I travel to Canada with my love once a year, and I don't want any hassles at the border. One time when I was confused and tried to communicate with the right department in Canada a vet actually said that the vaccine was far cheaper than the test!! Anyhow, the rabies titer is done at Kansas State U and that is the best resource out there, for all rabies testing, so no one can dispute the results. I make sure to have my paperwork with me and there has never been a problem. She wears her original tag, and I am thinking of getting one made that has the titer info on it as well. Check out Boomerang tags for some nice ones you can put whatever info you want on it.
Good going Nancy! More and more of us will help turn things around on this. We are the pioneers.

Posted by: robin r | February 18, 2014 5:51 PM    Report this comment

I argue with my vet every year about boosters...but my 6 yr old GSD and my 10 yr old Lab will never get another booster unless occassional titers show that they are at risk. Still looking for a vet who will read the recommendations of multiple studies on this point.

Posted by: Allison O | February 18, 2014 12:33 PM    Report this comment

I have been doing titers for years. I do them often to "prove" to boarding kennels, training facilities and the vet office that the dogs are in fact "covered". I've actually made a mini project out of it- see www.frontierrots.com/titerproject.htm I have my vet send blood to Cornell in NY for the Canine Vaccine panel 1 (distemper/ Parvo) titers and I pay under $100 a dog. This includes Cornell's fee, Fedex shipping of the blood and the vet time and materials

Posted by: rottlady | February 18, 2014 12:03 PM    Report this comment

I had a cocker die of autoimmune hemolytic anemia 13 yrs ago. He had been vaccinated all his life yearly.
After researching and finding that possible causes of AIHA may be due to over vaccinating, I have been doing titers annually.
KE Black

Posted by: Katherine B | February 18, 2014 10:08 AM    Report this comment

My springer had the worst skin flareups - in the middle of the winter! - two different vet offices were never able to "cure" him. They treated the result with prednisone and the like. I stopped the excessive shots, changed to grain free food and on and on, a natural flea preventive has worked for four years. Finally found a product that relieves his itching and licking. These same vets do not argue when I say no shots except rabies but I do worry even about that. But he has killed 2 skunks so I will continue - besides it is the law. He always reacts adversely to any shot. Just like with our own health - we have to take control of the wellness of our pets and not be pushed into something we know, or suspect, is wrong.

Posted by: Mike's Mom | February 18, 2014 9:07 AM    Report this comment

Vaccicheck is a single in-clinic test that accurately measures canine antibody titer to Infectious Hepatitis (ICH), Parvovirus (CPV) and Distemper (CDV).

Posted by: jerbon | March 23, 2013 12:29 PM    Report this comment

Alternative Titer Testing info (03-22-13)

Dr Dodds www.hemolife.com - Have your vet draw a blood sample and send to HemoLife. Distemper & Parvo Titers cost $50 + $5 your postage, Hepatitus Titer cost $80 + $5 postage (test is available but not listed on the Order Form, contact for sample instructions).

VacciCheck.com - Have your vet draw a blood sample and send to Veccicheck Lab, cost $55 + $5 your postage (test is $45 if combined w allergen test)
OR for multiple pets order the 12 Test Kit ($240 + $15 ship) direct from Vaccicheck and have test done at your Vet's for blood draw (results in 20 minutes).. Test Kit has 1 year shelf life.

Posted by: jerbon | March 23, 2013 12:12 PM    Report this comment

I am fortunate - but my TCM vet and traditional vet do not believe in over-vaccination. My dog is now 12 - and hasn't been vaccinated in over 7 years. According to his latest titers - his immunity remains the same.

His titers (and thyroid testing) is done by Hemopet in CA. They are affordable (much, much less than 345!) and provide excellent customer service. Dr. Dodds and her staff are prompt to respond to questions. They have also produced great studies/papers on vaccines and over-vaccination - that can be handed to a vet.

I am fortunate to live in a state that permits dogs to opt out of a rabies vaccine if there are medical reasons.

Posted by: McGuires_Mom | March 13, 2013 12:29 AM    Report this comment

I have been trying to get a titer from my vet for a couple of years. I live in Iowa and they tell me that the testing service they use, uses the University of Tenn., and the titer screening (a positive or negative immumity active result), not the actual titer concentration is $375 for one test and $230 for the other. Where are you getting your titers done for $100? They have told me that if I could find the lab that will do it cheeper, they would send it there. (I would LOVE to walk in there this Spring and hand them the information they should already know). Funny, the same vet was talking to me about a local vet(I didn't recognize the name, and have since forgot who it was) about 10 years ago who was doing all titer screenings before vaccinating. Now, he doesn't know who I'm talking about/he has never heard of anyone locally doing that. Hummmm convenient!

Posted by: kathy o | March 10, 2013 11:58 PM    Report this comment

I give my dogs their annual rabies that is legally required where I live. I do not do any titers. I have explained to my vet that my dogs will not be receiving the other vaccines annually and he accepts my position.

Posted by: NOLAhounds | March 6, 2013 8:51 PM    Report this comment

Titer testing has been my method for many years and I was lucky to find vets that would allow me to receive a rabies tag when the titer proved that a vaccination was not required. This is very expensive and still requires the vet visit, so they do not loose out on any money.
Now as of 2013 I went to do the same thing and I am told by our vet, Animal Control for our County and the Dept of Ag. that titer will no longer be acceptable for proof, that a Rabies shot must be given for a tag. They said the rules were rewritten at the beginning of 2013 by the Veterinarian Assoc.
I live in Illinois, but I think this is for the whole U.S.
Now if your dog's health is not good, you can still get a letter from the vet and then receive a tag from the county.
Sorry, but I think the vets that passed the change, are looking at the money and not the health of our pets.

Posted by: Carol_E | March 6, 2013 8:11 AM    Report this comment

I too have joined the ranks of advocating a once every several years for a titer test but no booster or reoccuring vaccinations for my Cocker Spaniel. The tests have shown that my 11 year old buddy has plenty of antibodies for rabbies and parvo etc.and probably will never need another shot for the rest of his life!
I spent the first 4 years of his life trying to undo what I believe to be the result of too much vaccine damage and am working with a holistic vet that gives me the pros and cons when decisions and care is needed. I am happy that I have taken it upon myself to give the best possible life for my 4 legged friend by reading and educating myself to find solutions to what most Vets will simply charge for non conclusive tests and endless perscriptions for. I try to educate my other pet friends as to what I have found and some are open and most are afraid. We owe it to be our pet's advocate!

Posted by: Dexter Puccini | March 5, 2013 6:57 PM    Report this comment

It's always nice to have a vet who is comfortable with your decisions regarding vaccination but in the end, it's your decision. That's what I had to determine where I live and I simply tell the vet I understand the recommendation but I choose not to have it done and that is that. I may get a reminder card for a vaccination but it is my choice to throw it away.

Posted by: YIKMDLF | March 5, 2013 4:22 PM    Report this comment

As a hobby breeder of Shelties, my vet understands that other than the legally required rabies vaccine that he must give, I administer any other vaccines, so it easily avoids the whole confrontation. Perhaps pet owners should try that approach. You can easily buy vaccines without a prescription on line.

Posted by: Linda M | March 5, 2013 3:56 PM    Report this comment

As a hobby breeder of Shelties, my vet understands that other than the legally required rabies vaccine that he must give, I administer any other vaccines, so it easily avoids the whole confrontation. Perhaps pet owners should try that approach. You can easily buy vaccines without a prescription on line.

Posted by: Linda M | March 5, 2013 3:56 PM    Report this comment

I do see a holistic vet for most things who agrees with minimal vaccinations and definitely no boosters. I actually just had a puppy vaccinated at 15 weeks for his first round of Distemper/Parvo and that is all he is ever getting unless his Titer is not adequate in a couple more weeks. I will not be getting anymore titers either. They serve to let you know your pet is immune and now will always be immune for probably their whole lives. He will only get Rabies at 6 months and then the 3 year route.
I see another vet for emergencies and a yearly heartworm/Lyme etc. I do not let them coerce me into anything I do not want for my pet and they now no better than to even ask.

Posted by: donleruss | March 5, 2013 3:45 PM    Report this comment

I own a large pet sitting service. We do not require proof of vaccines. The pet sitting is done in private homes. My vet has wonderful holistic practice with four other women. Titers are encouraged, but not mandatory. Rabies in this state is required every three years, so there is no alternative for that.

My dog is seven now, had her puppy shots, titers every couple of years and is still immune to all covered by the vaccines. I highly recommend a holistic vet,

Posted by: Lynda E | March 5, 2013 3:26 PM    Report this comment

My vet also wanted to give annual vaccines, but I explained what the AAHA recommended and the vet agreed that it was my choice. After all I am my pet's advocate.

Posted by: Arnie | March 5, 2013 10:39 AM    Report this comment

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