As a holistic veterinarian, I know that vaccinations can be both helpful and harmful, depending upon their usage. While limited vaccinations will help establish immunity in our younger pets, repeated and unnecessary vaccinations can be harmful if the immune system acts inappropriately and harms the pet. This article will explore vaccine titers and offer support to those of you who choose this route for your pets.
Q:What exactly are titer tests?
Vaccine titer tests are simple blood tests that measure your pet’s antibodies to certain diseases. In most practices these disesaes include distemper, parvo, and hepatitis virus for dogs and rhinotracheitis, calicivirus, and panleukopenia virus for cats. The titer is a mathematical number derived from testing your pet’s blood for antibodies against these disesaes. A positive titer means that your pet has antibodies against a specific disease (the titer usually results from prior vaccination to that disease or exposure to that disease) and indicates your pet is protected from disesaes from that virus. For example, a positive titer to distemper virus indicates your dog is protected from distemper virus.
Q:If my pet has a positive titer, will additional vaccines be harmful?
Giving additional vaccinations to a dog that has a positive titer will not offer more protection, is a waste of health care dollars, and could be harmful if the pet reacted inappropriately to an unnecessary vaccine. Positive titers indicate your pet is protected and vaccines can be skipped that year.
Q:My vet says titer tests are useless. Why would he say this?
I don’t really know why some doctors say this unless they are ignorant of basic immunology. Titer testing is used every day in veterinary practice to diagnose diseases such as heartworm disease and feline leukemia virus infection. Additionally, veterinarians who have been vaccinated against rabies virus routinely have their titers tested to determine if and when they might need to be revaccinated.
Q:Can I board or groom my pet if I choose titer testing in place of traditional vaccines?
Since boarding and grooming facilities, and doggie daycare businesses require vaccination, either recent vaccination or titer testing showing the pet is protected and not in need of additional vaccinations should be acceptable. Grooming and boarding facilities associated with a veterinary clinic usually will NOT accept titer results, whereas other facilities not associated with a veterinary clinic usually WILL accept either titers or vaccines. Check with the facility to be sure.
Q:What about rabies shots?
Rabies titer testing is done frequently in people as mentioned above. It is an acceptable method to determine protection against rabies in pets as well, and is required for international transportation. Unfortunately, most city, state, and county laws require frequent rabies vaccinations as they do not accept titer testing. Hopefully this will change someday. For now, vaccination for rabies done every 3 years is adequate as long as your pet is healthy.
Q:I’ve heard that titer testing is expensive. Is this true?
This depends. Some veterinarians, especially those who don’t routinely do titer testing, charge a lot for this testing I’ve seen some client invoices in my area for $200-400 for titer testing for dogs just for distemper and parvo virus. In my own practice, we do the titer testing for distemper, parvo, and hepatitis virus (3 titers rather than 2) PLUS the complete annual visit (which includes an examination, heartworm test, fecal test, and urinalysis) for under $200. If you visit a doctor who routinely does the testing, especially if it’s done in the doctor’s office, it is very reasonably priced.
Q:Is it better to do the titer testing in the doctor’s office or have him send the sample to an outside lab for testing?
By doing the testing “in-house,” the cost is greatly reduced and quality control is increased due to a smaller volume of patients being tested. That being said, outside labs can do titer testing nicely especially for busier practices that may not have time to do the testing in the office, but the pricing is likely to be higher when testing is done by an outside lab.
Q:When should titer testing be done?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Most holistic veterinarians do limited vaccines for their puppy and kitten patients, following a series of immunizations to ensure adequate protective immunity without “overdoing it” like traditional doctors. A limited booster series may be done 1 year following the final puppy or kitten visit, at approximately 18 months of age. Then titer testing is done the following year and continues annually for the life of the pet. Vaccines are given only when titer testing shows a need for them based upon the pet’s immunity.
Titer testing can also be done for stray pets or rescue/adopted pets for whom the vaccination history is not known. These pets can be immunized if needed based upon titer testing results.
Q:If I need to vaccinate my pet based upon titer testing results, when would the next titer test be done?
It would be done the following year when your pet’s annual visit occurs. It is expected that the titer test would be normal at that time, indicating protective immunity without the need for immunization. However, we don’t know that for sure so titer testing should be done annually following the booster immunization.
Q:Titer testing sounds great! Is there any downside to doing this testing?
Not really. However, no test is perfect. Titer testing does tell us a lot about the state of your pet’s immune system and its ability to prevent specific diseases. There is no guarantee that a titer will protect your pet, but there is also no guarantee a vaccine will protect your pet either. If your groomer or boarding facility does not accept titer results, you will either need to ove-rvaccinate your pet (not a good choice) or find another facility that is more open-minded and concerned with your pet’s health (a much better choice.)