What is Titer Testing?

Perhaps you know a little bit about antibody titers (aka, vaccine titers, vaccine serology, and titer testing), but find the topic to be confusing.

The testing process is now affordable and readily available. Given this ease, accessibility, and affordability, it makes really good sense to figure out if antibody testing is a good choice for your dog. Here’s some information to bring you up to speed on this topic.

Running antibody titers
All that is required to run an antibody titer is a blood sample, something that is quick and easy to collect from most dogs. Antibody titers assess the concentration of disease-specific antibodies within the bloodstream. For example, a high parvovirus antibody titer suggests adequate disease protection. Therefore, no need to revaccinate against parvovirus for now. Conversely, a low or nonexistent antibody titer suggests that revaccinating is warranted.
Assessment of rabies-specific antibodies is also available but, because everything to do with rabies is government-regulated, this testing is performed only within specialized laboratories. Additionally, vaccinating against rabies is required by law- antibody test results are unlikely to “excuse” a dog from having to be revaccinated at officially designated intervals.

Titers versus simply revaccinating
It’s natural to view vaccinating as simply a “routine procedure.” Not so much, however, if your dog happens to be one who suffers an adverse vaccine reaction. Some adverse reactions occur immediately following the injection, others not until days or even weeks later. Vaccine reaction symptoms vary from mild to severe, and, on occasion, they can be life threatening.

Using antibody titers wisely
The BFCA encourages you to include antibody titers as part of your vaccination discussion with your veterinarian. For more than a decade now, we’ve known with certainty that distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus vaccinations provide protection to adult dogs for a minimum of three years, emphasis on the word “minimum.” In fact, for some dogs, immune protection extends well beyond three years, and may even be life long. It makes sense then to consider antibody titers in lieu of automatically revaccinating every three years. Here are some other ways antibody titer testing can be put to good use:
Dogs with prior adverse vaccine reactions: Whenever a dog has had an adverse reaction to a vaccine, there’s always the potential for a repeat performance. One is left with the dilemma of whether or not to revaccinate. Antibody titer testing can be tremendously helpful in this situation. If the results reveal adequate protection- whew! Another vaccination and its potential side effects can be avoided.

Dogs with immunological disease: It is usually recommended that dogs with a history of autoimmune disease (immune mediated disease) receive as few vaccinations as possible. Because the dog’s immune system has been triggered in the past to attack the body’s own cells, the very last thing the dog needs is a vaccination that will, with certainty, trigger the immune system. Antibody titer testing can really help in such cases.

Dogs who are sick: A vaccination may be the very last thing that a chronically or seriously ill dog needs. Conversely, if the dog’s immune system function is depressed, the vaccine may be truly important. Antibody titers can help sort this out.

Veterinarian insistent on annual vaccinations: Unfortunately, even more than a decade after learning that core vaccinations provide a minimum of three years of protection, some veterinarians continue to insist on revaccinating each and every year. If, for some reason, you insist on continuing to work with such a veterinarian,we encourage you to opt for antibody testing in order to avoid subjecting your dog to the risks of unnecessary vaccinations.

Resistance from your veterinarian
If your veterinarian is opposed to titer testing or, worse yet, he or she is insisitent on vaccinating your adult dog for distemper, adenovirus, and parvovirus once a year, you’ve got some decision-making to do. Do you subject your dog to unnecessary vaccinations (and the risks associated with them), or do you find yourself a new veterinarian, one who isn’t operating in the “stone age”?

If you and your dog really like this veterinarian, I suggest having conversation about vaccination schedules and serology. Refer your vet to this article or any of the many others that have been written. Remind him or her that veterinarians who are vaccinated for rabies protection are not automatically revaccinated. Rather, antibody titer testing is used to determine if another rabies vaccination is due.

If you choose to find a more progressive veterinarian to help care for your beloved dog (and we heartily encourage you to do so), request an interview during which you can determine the prospective vet’s philosophy concerning vaccines and antibody testing. Discussing all of this with your veterinarian is a perfectly reasonable expectation, and your input is an invaluable part of the decision-making process.

Have you investigated antibody titers for your dog?

Nancy Kay D.V.M
Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine
University of California-Davis Veterinary School