Titer Testing: A Solution to the Vaccine Controversy?

For as many lives as they have saved and their overall excellent safety record, vaccines are often the recipient of many finger-pointing situations. From lethargy, to epilepsy, cancer, and even death, vaccines have been blamed (sometimes fairly, other times unfairly) for a number of negative side effects. Now more than ever, the need to annually vaccinate your pet is being questioned by pet owners and veterinarians alike.

Whether or not vaccines are at fault for some of these reactions is still inconclusive in many cases, largely because of unfortunate circumstances where pet parents choose to not move forward with an investigation in an already painful situation. There are passionate opinions on both sides of the fence, but most agree that the safest thing for your pet still includes making sure your pet is protected against deadly diseases. For pets who are sensitive to vaccines, pet parents that are simply concerned about repetitive vaccine safety, and veterinarians wanting to make sure our pets are protected against deadly and preventable diseases, vaccine titers offer a middle ground to satisfy all parties without compromising the safety and health of your pet.

What is a Titer?

Vaccine titer testing is a blood test that measures the actual level of protection your dog’s immune system has against certain diseases. Specifically, titers detect antibodies, which are proteins produced by the body when the immune system detects a disease-causing organism (e.g., virus, bacteria) or another “foreign” substance, like a vaccine. Antibody-stimulating substances are called antigens. Titer test results tell your veterinarian not only whether your pet has antibodies to a specific antigen, but also the level of these specific antibodies.

Has Your Vet Talked to You About Titers?

Don't immediately raise an eyebrow if your vet hasn’t initiated this conversation. Your vet may feel uncomfortable mentioning and recommending titers unless you first mention vaccine concerns because titers are far more expensive than a standard vaccine. The last thing your vet wants is to try and push an expensive service on a pet parent and spoil that relationship when it’s far easier and perhaps just as safe to give the $20 vaccine. Many pet owners would view this as money-hungry, even though titer testing is widely believed to be better for the pet, so please forgive your vet (and me!) for not regularly offering this. The great news for Embrace pet parents is that titers are covered under Embrace's Wellness Rewards program.

So, How Long Should Vaccines Last?

Why can't we as the veterinary community agree upon how frequently vaccines must be administered once a pet reaches adulthood? Unfortunately, we don’t know how long vaccines really last. This is because drug companies must conduct studies to evaluate the vaccines and measures titer levels on pets, and to fund a study for 7 or 10 years before releasing the product becomes very expensive and time-consuming for the pharmaceutical companies. A harsh limiting factor is also that many pets in these studies die before the study can be completed.

Titers tests are useful when making decisions about whether to re-vaccinate or booster an adult pet. According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s vaccine guidelines (widely considered the gold standard in veterinary medicine), vaccine titer tests have recently been established for some diseases, such as canine parvovirus and canine distemper, but not all. Immunity is complex and not completely understood at this time; the absence of antibodies in an adult pet does not necessarily mean that the animal is no longer immune but, at this time, it is the best concrete guideline for protection that we have.

While much is unknown about immunity, we do know that adequate levels of vaccine titers indicate that the pet does not need a booster vaccination at that time. In an article published in Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association, veterinarian and titer trailblazer, Dr. Jean Dodds, documented 1,400 cases in which more than 97 percent of the dogs tested had good immunity from vaccines given 10 years earlier (JAVMA, Nov 15, 2002). It certainly makes pet parents and veterinarians alike question the need for annual vaccination of core vaccines, or even vaccination every three years. In any case, ask your veterinarian what he or she recommends and be sure you are comfortable with the plan. What is your vaccine plan with your pet? Do you know anyone whose pet has suffered an adverse vaccine reaction?

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