Enlightened veterinarians and pet parents have become increasingly wary of the health risks, and lack of benefits, associated with repeatedly vaccinating dogs after their initial "puppy shots." Is titer testing the solution to over-vaccinating? Here's a crash course to help you muddle through the mire of misinformation surrounding this simple blood test, and to help you decide whether or not to test your dog's antibody titers.
What is titer testing? A titer test (pronounced TIGHT er) is a laboratory test measuring the existence and level of antibodies in blood. Antibodies are produced when a foreign substance like a virus or bacteria provokes an immune response. Responses can come from natural exposure or vaccination.
Should I test for all diseases? The most recommended test examines antibodies for both parvovirus and distemper, the two most important viruses. Rabies titers are also often tested. For most dogs, tests for other diseases are generally not considered useful or necessary.
Why test? The parvovirus/distemper test can help you or others (vets, groomers, kennel owners, etc.) determine if your dog requires additional vaccination, and may save your dog unnecessary shots. Testing is especially useful when making a decision about vaccinating an animal with unknown vaccination history, or for determining if puppies have received immunity from vaccination (more below).
Do not expect, however, that everyone will accept test results in place of proof of vaccination. The subject of immunity is complicated, and we are programmed to think of vaccination as "the gold standard" even when confronted with proof to the contrary.
How often should I test titers? Some vets test yearly, but this can be expensive. Others test every three years. Still others test five to seven years after vaccination. (Challenge tests show that successful vaccination against parvovirus gives most animals at least seven years of immunity. Distemper provides immunity for at least five to seven years.)
Dr. Ron Schultz, one of the most renowned pet vaccination experts in the country, believes that once a test yields strong titers, you need not test again. Note:To get an accurate test, wait at least 14 days after vaccination before testing.
Does a weak titer mean that the dog needs a "booster" shot? Maybe not for dogs that have previously shown strong titers. Many experts, including Dr. Schultz, say the dog's immune system will have produced memory cells that will produce antibodies when they're needed.
Should I test my puppy? Yes! Ideally, puppies should have had their last vaccination after 16 weeks of age then should be tested to see if further vaccination is necessary. The AAHA Canine Task Force Report (page 13) states: "Such titer testing is the only way to ensure that a puppy has developed an immune response after vaccinating."
What do titer tests cost? Costs vary widely so shop around. Some vets test in-house; others use outside labs. Some mark up prices a little; others, a lot. Ask your vet to have a Titer Testing Day to test multiple dogs and bring costs down.
Isn't vaccinating cheaper than testing? No. Testing can be a one-time (or at least rare) expense and is no riskier than a simple blood draw. Repeated vaccinating is expensive and can potentially cause lifelong illness.
Should I test for rabies antibodies? The rabies titer test will give you an indication of your dog's immunity if he or she is at particular risk for contracting rabies. It may also be required prior to international travel. Test results will NOT be accepted by Animal Control and most others as a substitute for vaccination as required by law.
If your dog has documented health problems or documented adverse reactions to shots, your vet may be able to get your dog an exemption for rabies vaccination. A titer test is not usually required for getting the exemption. Read more or see my dog vaccination videos and articles at my dog care blog.
Your vet, groomer, spouse, best friend, kennel owner or day-care provider may insist your dog needs continued vaccination against parvovirus and distemper even if testing indicates otherwise. Know that vets out of school longer than 10 years received little or no immunology or vaccinology training in school; they shouldn't be considered experts unless they've devoted dozens of hours to research and post-grad training. Others who want to influence you may have had no training at all and are likely acting out of fear. Do your own research and advocate for your dog.
Jan Rasmusen authored Scared Poopless: The Straight Scoop on Dog Care, a comprehensive, fun-to-read book on holistic dog health and safety. Jan's book won national awards for the Best Health Care Book (of any kind) and Best Pet Care Book. Find free dog care videos, audios, and articles at Jan's website Dogs4Dogs.com. Sign up for her popular free e-newsletter and her information-packed blogs.