Over the past two decades, there is an increasing movement to forego the routine vaccination of pet dogs. The anti-vaccination movement has its origins in a case of childhood disorder that was inaccurately linked to vaccination. The study has since been debunked. Yet, the media and the internet have fueled the growing apathy towards regular pet vaccinations. This is despite assurances from veterinary medical associations that dog and cat vaccines offer more protection in the long term than what its detractors claim. Regardless, it is understandable that pet parents are taking a second look at the advantages of having their dogs vaccinated. And one of the most sought-after procedures to help them make the decision whether to revaccinate their pets or not is a titer test for dogs. If this is your first time hearing about this test, then you’re in the right place.
Understanding What a Titer Test for Dogs Is
A titer test is a procedure that aims to measure antibody levels in a dog. These antibodies are specific to a particular disease in dogs like rabies and canine distemper. Since there are a myriad of canine diseases, there can also be numerous canine titer tests.
Everything starts with an infection, whether clinical or subclinical. The difference between the two is the appearance of signs and symptoms. In a subclinical infection, the dog may appear normal since there are no signs and symptoms of an ongoing infection. Regardless of the type of infection, however, one thing is clear – there is the stimulation of the dog’s immune system.
Whenever there is an infection, cells of the immune system get mobilized to neutralize, kill, and remove the invading pathogen. There are many cells in the immune system that work together to remove the pathogen from the body. There are macrophages and phagocytes that engulf or “eat” the pathogens for removal. There are also cells that present these pathogens to phagocytes and other immune system cells.
B cells are the scouts of the immune system. They try to spot a pathogen or antigen that enters the body. Once they recognize the presence of these unwanted “visitors”, B cells start producing antibodies that are specific to the antigen. These antibodies or immunoglobulins stick to the antigen and form an antigen-antibody complex. The immune system then activates the T cells to attack the antigen-antibody complex.
T cells work in one of two ways, depending on the pathogen or the antigen. First, it can bind to the antigen and present it to macrophages and natural killer cells for inactivation, killing, and removal. Second, T cells can deactivate the antigen or pathogen itself by altering some of the essential mechanisms necessary for the pathogen’s survival. In addition to these mechanisms of action, T cells also create copies of the very same antibody used in fighting the infection. As such, in the event of a future invasion by the same pathogen, the immune system is ready.
Depending on how strong the pathogen is and the reaction of the immune system, one can see signs and symptoms of an infection or not. Hence, you may think that Fido is doing okay. But the fact is that its immune system is already busy trying to fight an infection.
This is what occurs when a dog gets vaccinated. Vaccines are nothing more than formulations that contain fragments or weakened parts of specific pathogens. They are so weak that they cannot produce a full-blown clinical infection. They can also comprise only of fragments or sections of the pathogen. Hence, clinical disease is almost impossible.
When these pathogens get introduced via vaccination, the dog’s immune system go into battle mode. Since the antigens are insufficient to cause a clinical disease, you don’t see your dog getting sick. However, there will always be other manifestations that can develop, such as fever and weakness. These can occur because of the current state of the dog’s immune system.
So where do titer tests fit into all of these?
Titer tests are excellent tools for determining the level of antibodies in the dog. After vaccination, you should expect the antibody levels for a specific disease to be at its optimum. This is the main reason why some pet parents want their dogs to have a titer test first. They want to know if the circulating antibodies for a particular disease are enough or sufficient to protect their respective pets. If there are enough antibodies left, then maybe they can forego the revaccination for the meantime.
Interpreting Dog Titer Test Results
A titer test may help you decide whether to revaccinate your pet or not. However, it does not give a very accurate picture of your dog’s immune status. Here are the ways veterinarians interpret dog titer test results.
Positive in Unvaccinated Dogs
If the titer test came out positive yet the dog is not vaccinated, then it means the animal has a prior exposure to the pathogen that it is being vaccinated against. It is also possible that it is now recovering from a recent infection of the same organism. This means the dog has protective immunity.
Positive in Vaccinated Dogs
If the test came back with positive results in a vaccinated dog, then it means that the animal has protective immunity.
Negative in Vaccinated Dogs
As a general rule, a vaccinated animal should have a positive titer test. It can mean that the canine is at risk of developing an infection. It can also mean that the dog stays protected because of the presence of memory cells. It is important to understand that there are many cells of the immune system that can fight infection. Antibodies are just one of them. A titer test only measures the levels of antibodies and not all the infection-fighting cells of the immune system.
If your dog has had a titer test before with a positive result, then having a negative titer test result this time around is a good sign that protective memory cells are available. Should the dog meet the same pathogen, these memory cells can produce the very same antibodies it used before to fight the infection.
Titer Test Is Not a Substitute for Canine Vaccination
It is clear that a titer test is NOT a substitute for dog vaccination. Vaccines help confer protection to an animal by stimulating its immune system to produce antibodies. The dog can use these antibodies in the event that a “real” pathogen enters the body. It already has the antibodies that can mount an effective defense against the infectious organism, whether it is a bacteria or a virus.
In addition to readily-available disease-specific antibodies, vaccination can also stimulate the production of memory cells. These can help supply the body with enough amounts of antibodies the dog needs to defend itself against infection.
A titer test is nothing more than a test that measures the levels of antibodies in the dog’s system. Unfortunately, antibodies are not the only compounds that define a pet canine’s immune status. There are other cells as well. As such, interpreting canine titer tests can be very challenging.
There are also veterinarians who may have differing opinions about how to interpret such results. Some say that the presence of antibodies does not always mean immune protection. Others say that lacking antibodies does not also mean vulnerability. While the veterinary community continues to debate on the matter, it is clear that a titer test is a tool and not a protective mechanism.
Core Vaccinations and State Laws
The fundamental reason for having a canine titer test is to determine whether to revaccinate your pet or not. However, one has to understand that there are very specific laws in each country that calls for the mandatory vaccination of dogs.
For instance, all dogs in the United States have to get their rabies vaccine shots following the recommended schedule. Each state has its own anti-rabies law that specifies, among other things, the rabies vaccination schedule of dogs, cats, and other animals within their jurisdiction. These laws do not regard a positive anti-rabies titer as a qualification for not vaccinating the animal. Since these are laws, failure to comply with the law can lead to the imposition of fines and other penalties.
Some say that it is the dog owner’s right to decide whether to have his pet vaccinated or not. However, it is also the right of veterinarians, animal clinics and hospitals, and other entities to refuse or deny an unvaccinated animal. The reason is that mixing an unvaccinated animal with vaccinated species can lead to the transmission of disease-causing microorganisms.
Unfortunately, there is no way one can predict future antibody levels in any pet. Stress, medications, and disease can all have a negative impact on the canine’s resistance to infections or its ability to fight disease. As such, getting a titer test would be a good idea to help determine “current” levels of antibodies. This can help pave the way for deciding whether to revaccinate or not.
However, when it comes to core vaccinations like rabies, canine parvovirus, canine hepatitis, and canine distemper, following the vaccine schedule is a must. As for other vaccines like leptospirosis, Borrelia, and Bordetella, it is up to the pet parent to decide whether to revaccinate or not.
The Economics Behind Dog Titer Tests and Vaccines
One of the greatest concerns that pet parents have is over-vaccinating their pets. That is why a dog titer test can help them decide whether to revaccinate Fido or not.
Some veterinarians argue that manufacturers of canine vaccines pressure members of the veterinary community to push vaccines, although there is no need for it. This is often in exchange for some monetary gain or some other form of “professional assistance” to the veterinarian pushing the vaccines. It is not uncommon to hear vets and vet technicians making a little money out of vaccinating pets.
But then, dog titer tests also don’t come cheap. For instance, getting a parvovirus-distemper titer test can cost you about $75 to $80. The vaccine for the same microorganisms can cost about $20 to $25. In case the results turned out negative, then you might think it is necessary to revaccinate the dog. This can add to the cost.
Remember, a titer test does not give you an accurate picture of your pet’s immune status. The negative result can mean your pet is vulnerable to parvovirus and distemper infections. Or, it can also mean that its memory cells are present. But since the test does not look for memory cells, then you run the risk of “over-vaccinating” your pet.
Risk of “Over-vaccinating” Dogs and the Need for a Titer Test
Over-vaccinating dogs is the battle cry of anti-vaccination advocates. Given the nature of vaccination and its production, it is clear that over-vaccination in pets is a real issue. There are veterinarians who push for vaccines that dogs may already have ample protection from. There are also those who put too much emphasis on vaccines rather than on the dog’s overall health.
For instance, there are other more serious health problems that these pets face. There is Lyme disease, heartworm infections, and intestinal parasitism. There are also periodontal diseases and non-infectious health problems that pet parents need to understand. These are illnesses that can also affect a dog’s health. For more options head over to our guide on heartworm medicine for dogs.
Although rare, there are also adverse reactions that can occur with vaccination. Unfortunately, many of these adverse reactions are the direct result of an already-compromised immune system or the presence of an underlying medical condition. There are also canine breeds that are more susceptible to vaccination complications. Examples of these are Pugs, Yorkshire Terriers, and Chihuahuas.
As such, having a canine titer test can help provide an idea whether the pet has adequate protection or not. This will help determine whether you need to revaccinate Fido or defer it for now.
Titer tests are great tools for helping you decide whether to revaccinate your pet or not. However, for your pet’s own sake, we strongly recommend having your puppies vaccinated in their first year of life. This will help provide the protection that they need. For succeeding vaccinations or booster doses, you can have a canine titer test to help you decide.
- To titer or to revaccinate – AVMA