Answering your questions about titer testing, a safe alternative to annual vaccines.

Vaccinations can be both helpful and harmful. It all depends on how they’re used. In young dogs and cats, vaccines help establish immunity from infectious disease. But repeated and unnecessary vaccines can be harmful if the immune system reacts to them inappropriately and makes the animal ill. Titer testing is a safe way to avoid over-vaccination while ensuring your companion remains protected from disease. This article will answer some common questions about vaccine titers.

Q. WHAT EXACTLY ARE TITER TESTS?

Vaccine titer tests are simple blood tests that measure your animal’s antibodies to certain diseases. In most practices, these diseases include distemper, parvo and hepatitis virus for dogs, and rhinotracheitis, calicivirus and panleukopenia virus for cats. The titer is a number derived from testing your animal’s blood for antibodies against these diseases. A positive titer means your dog or cat has antibodies against a specific disease (the titer usually results from prior vaccination to the disease, or exposure to the disease). It indicates he is protected from the illness caused by that particular virus. For example, a positive titer to distemper virus indicates your dog is protected from distemper.

Q. WHEN SHOULD TITER TESTING BE DONE?

There is no right or wrong answer to this question. Most holistic veterinarians do limited vaccinations for their puppy and kitten patients, using a series of immunizations to ensure adequate protective immunity without “overdoing it” like traditional doctors do. A limited booster series may be done one year following the final puppy or kitten vaccine visit, when the animals are approximately 18 months of age. Titer testing is then done the following year and continues annually for the life of the animal. Vaccines are given only when titer testing shows a need for them based on the dog or cat’s immunity.

Titer testing can also be done for stray or rescue/adopted animals with an unknown vaccination history. These animals can be immunized if needed, based upon their titer testing results.

Q. IS IT EXPENSIVE?

It depends. Some veterinarians, especially those who don’t routinely do titer testing, charge a lot for it. I’ve seen invoices for $200 to $400 just for distemper and parvo titer testing. But if you visit a doctor who routinely does titer testing, especially if it’s done in the doctor’s office, it is very reasonably priced. For my own canine patients, I do titer testing for distemper, parvo and hepatitis virus, plus a complete annual checkup, for under $200.

Q. IF MY ANIMAL HAS A POSITIVE TITER, WILL ADDITIONAL VACCINES BE HARMFUL?

Giving additional vaccinations to a dog or cat that has a positive titer for a particular disease will not offer more protection, is a waste of health care dollars, and could be harmful if he reacts adversely to the vaccine. Positive titers indicate your animal is protected and vaccines can be skipped that year.

Q. WHY DOES MY VET SAY TITER TESTS ARE USELESS?

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 and feline leukemia infection. And veterinarians who have themselves been vaccinated against rabies routinely have their titers tested to determine if and when they might need to be revaccinated.

Q. CAN I TAKE MY ANIMAL TO A BOARDING KENNEL OR GROOMER IF I CHOOSE TITER TESTING IN PLACE OF VACCINES?

Since kennels, grooming facilities, and doggie daycare businesses require proof of immunization, either recent vaccines or titer tests showing that the animal is protected and not in need of additional vaccination should be acceptable. Keep in mind that grooming and boarding facilities associated with a conventional veterinary clinic will usually not accept titer results, whereas those not associated with a veterinary clinic will usually accept either titers or vaccines. Check with the facility to be sure.

Q. WHAT ABOUT RABIES SHOTS?

Rabies titer testing is frequently done in people, as mentioned earlier. It is also an acceptable method for determining protection against rabies in animals, and is required for international transportation. Unfortunately, most city, state and county laws require frequent rabies vaccinations because they do not accept titer testing. Hopefully, this will change someday. For now, vaccinating for rabies every three years is adequate as long as your animal is healthy.

Q. IS IT BETTER TO HAVE TITER TESTING DONE AT THE CLINIC OR BY AN OUTSIDE LAB?

By doing the testing “in-house”, the cost is greatly reduced and quality control is better due to the 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 it in the office, but the price is likely to be higher.

Q. IF I NEED TO VACCINATE BASED ON TESTING RESULTS, WHEN SHOULD THE NEXT TEST BE DONE?

It would be done the following year at your dog or cat’s annual visit. The titer test should be normal at that time, indicating protective immunity without the need for further immunization – but we don’t know this for sure, so the testing should be done annually following any booster immunization.

Q. IS THERE ANY DOWNSIDE TO TITER TESTING?

Not really. However, no test is perfect. Titer testing tells us a lot about the state of your dog or cat’s immune system and its ability to prevent specific diseases. There is no guarantee that a titer will protect him – but there is no guarantee a vaccine will protect him either.

If your groomer or boarding facility does not accept titer results, you will need to either over-vaccinate your dog or cat (not a good choice), or find another facility that is more open-minded and concerned with his health (a much better choice!).

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