Titer Tests: Alternatives to Annual Jabs?
An antibody test can tell if a previous vaccine is still protecting your dog so you don’t need to re- or over-vaccinate them.
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By now you know the importance of vaccines (for pets and humans!): They protect your dog from diseases like canine parvovirus, canine distemper virus, rabies, and more. That’s why you mindfully take your new dog in for their puppy shots and routinely bring them back to the vet for a booster when that reminder postcard arrives.
Most experts agree that vaccines are critical for the overall health and wellness of dogs (and cats). But many also agree that giving a vaccine when it is not needed exposes animals to unnecessary hazards. That’s where titer testing comes in. Titer testing pets can ensure protection from infectious diseases while minimizing over-vaccination side effects. Keep reading to learn what exactly titer testing for dogs is — and whether or not it’s right for your dog.
What Are Titer Tests for Dogs?
Titer tests are among the tools that can be used to help minimize the risks of both infectious diseases and unnecessary vaccinations. A titer test is an antibody blood test that can tell you if a previous vaccine is still protecting your dog’s immune system. If it’s still working by producing antibodies, you don’t have to revaccinate your pet yet.
Dr. Evelyn Sharp, a veterinarian in Santa Cruz, CA, has used titer tests with her own dogs since she began practicing veterinary medicine in the ’90s. The first dog she regularly tested was her Border Collie mix, Ace. Titer tests showed that the protection provided by Ace’s initial puppy series and one-year booster lasted the rest of his life. With the recent availability of in-practice titer test kits — VacciCheck from Biogal Laboratories and TiterCHEK from Synbiotics Corporation — titer testing for dogs has become even easier to do.
Because the newer titer test kits are affordable, accurate, and can be run in-house (rather than by a lab), Dr. Sharp suggests titer testing as part of preventive care. With the information she gets from the titers, she can provide a customized vaccination protocol for each dog, keeping the dog well-protected while minimizing the risk of over-vaccination.
What Exactly is Involved in Titer Testing?
A “titer” is a method of measuring antibodies in a blood sample for specific diseases. Your vet will draw a small amount of blood and then run that blood through the titer test. Titers are usually expressed as a ratio; if the titer number is high, it means that your dog has enough antibodies to fight off that specific disease and is considered to have immunity from infection. For many of our dogs, that immunity is the result of a previous vaccine. However, immunity can also develop because a dog had the disease in the past. Either way, a high titer means your dog is protected.
If the test shows a low titer, your dog may not have immunity. They may still have some protection, but usually a low titer means that you and your veterinarian should discuss revaccinating. Just as vaccine prices vary, the price of a titer test can also vary. According to Dr. Sharp, the VacciCheck tests three diseases — parvovirus, distemper, and adenovirus (canine hepatitis) — and generally runs between $45 and $80, which is a little more than most vaccines.
Are There Any Limitations to Titer Testing for Dogs?
AAHA vaccine guidelines say that titer testing is an appropriate way to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper, and adenovirus. However, it is not recommended for canine leptospirosis, bordetella, or Lyme disease because these vaccines only provide short-term protection.
Rabies vaccines do provide long-term protection, and the titer tests for rabies are also considered to be a very accurate measure of immunity. However, vaccination against rabies is mandated by law and unfortunately no state in the U.S. accepts titer-test results in lieu of vaccination history. So if your dog bites someone, they will still need to be quarantined, even if a titer test shows they have immunity. Specific types of rabies titer tests are used, however, when moving to rabies-free regions or countries (Hawaii, Japan, New Zealand, and Great Britain, for example). In this case, the rabies titer test will help qualify a dog for a shorter quarantine.
Is Titer Testing Right for Your Dog?
Along with using titer tests to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper, and adenovirus in a previously vaccinated adult dog, titers are also a good option for a newly adopted dog whose vaccination or health history you may not know.
In addition, a titer test may be used to make sure young puppies have responded to the initial vaccine series and are fully protected. If a pup did not respond, the vaccine may have been compromised, the mother’s immunity may still be active, or the pup may be a non-responder (meaning they will not have an immune reaction to vaccines). Your veterinarian can help you decide on the best course of action if your dog does not have an acceptable titer. On the flip side, titer tests are a good option for senior pets, for whom vaccinating can be unnecessary (if they were effectively vaccinated as puppies and developed an immune response) or risker, due to compromised immune systems and/or chronic diseases.
Another place titer tests are gaining momentum is in shelters, although with a much different goal than when used with individual dogs. There, titer tests are being used to help separate low-risk and high-risk dogs and cats during a disease outbreak. Shelter dogs who have a high titer to the outbreak disease — meaning they are at a low risk for infection — can be separated from the higher-risk animals, and they may be considered adoptable. (Learn more about titer testing in shelters from Maddie’s Fund, which has an excellent report on using titer testing to fight outbreaks.)
While vaccinating your dog is critical for protecting them (and the community) from infectious diseases, over-vaccinating can also be a real concern. Titer tests for dogs can eliminate some of the guesswork and help you and your vet make the best healthcare decision for your dog.
Mardi Richmond MA, CPTD-KA
Mardi Richmond, MA, CPTD-KA, is a writer, editor, and trainer. Her articles on canine health, training, and behavior have appeared in The Dog Trainer’s Resource and Whole Dog Journal.