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Titer Use Lands in a Gray Area: For some dogs, it's the way to go, but it is more costly.

Vaccines are lifesavers. They provide our dogs with nearly 100 percent protection from deadly diseases like parvo, distemper, and rabies. But questions surrounding over vaccination--giving a vaccination when a dog doesn't truly need it--are growing.

This is when titers can help, and the American Animal Hospital Association says titers for three canine illnesses--distemper, parvo, and adenovirus--may be substituted for booster vaccinations. This does not mean that giving a booster when your dog doesn't truly need it will make him ill. It's simply a growing concern about alternatives to a vaccine.

What Is a Titer?

Your dog naturally creates antibodies (the defenders) in response to being exposed to an antigen (the pathogen). Antibodies are specific for one antigen, showing the immune system is active against that antigen. Dogs are exposed to pathogens (and therefore antigens) both by natural exposure, such as from a sneezing dog at the dog park, and by being given a vaccine. Vaccines can contain inactivated or killed pathogens, modified live or attenuated pathogens, or recombinant versions of pathogens that are genetically modified.

A titer is a measure of immunity. An antibody titer looks at the amount of antibodies your dog has at the time the blood is drawn. Antibodies are one of your dog's immune responses to fight against disease-causing pathogens. Antibodies specifically act against antigens, which are the substances on pathogens the body detects as "foreign."

There are two ways to evaluate titers. The first is quantitative. This testing requires a blood sample to be sent to a laboratory for results. This titer will give you a numerical value as the result, such as 1:800 (a titer reported as 1:300 is not as effective as a titer of 1:1600).

The titer gives you an idea of how well protected your dog is for that specific disease. However, deciding what level is a truly protective titer remains an inexact science.

Veterinary immunologists feel different titers are protective for different illnesses and the exact level to prevent illness in any given dog may rely on other factors as well, such as the general health of the dog.

The second way to look at titers is qualitative. This blood test just tells you either the dog is protected or not. It's done at many clinics in-house while you wait, but without an exact ratio.

When to Choose a Titer

Titers can begin once your puppy has completed his series of initial puppy vaccines. For a puppy, the titer blood sample should be drawn two to four weeks after the last booster to allow the immune system to respond and build up antibodies.

You can choose to pay for a titer--usually it's more expensive than the vaccine--any time you want to avoid a booster or the dog's immunity is in question. If you plan to use titers, you should get annual titers, even if the specific vaccine has a booster date of three years later. You should monitor his immunity annually, so you don't get caught by surprise.

Once you have a titer result, it can guide you as to whether your dog needs a booster vaccine. Critical Note: A titer is a "point in time" result. There is no reliable way to predict how long that protective titer will last. For this reason, while booster vaccines are currently recommended every three years after the initial series, your veterinarian may recommend doing annual titers, so you can catch it early on if your dog is no longer sufficiently protected.


Doing a titer can identify dogs who are "non-responders," which occurs most often with parvo virus. These are dogs who, despite adequate immunization or sometimes even after clinical exposure, may not show a protective antibody response. Depending on the level of immunity present, a dog may be protected from clinical illness but still be capable of being infected (and potentially passing the infection on).

Some dogs simply can't produce immunity to a specific antigen. This will become evident with repeated nonprotective titers. These dogs are susceptible to that antigen/disease for life. For example, some Rottweilers have a risk for genetic non-responders to both parvo and rabies. The gene pool in the United States has selected against these dogs (they tend to get ill and die), but there are still some in Europe.

A dog who is a non-responder tends to have the problem with just one specific antigen, not all vaccines, unless there is a major immune defect. According to one study, among dogs in the United States, the incidence of nonresponders for parvo is 1 in every 1,000 dogs, and 1 in every 5,000 dogs for distemper. For adenovirus, the risk is less than 1 dog for every 100,000.

Bottom Line

For a healthy, active dog, particularly one who goes to places where groups of dogs may gather--grooming shop, training classes, dog competitions--a booster is important. Your dog is being exposed frequently and needs immunity against potentially deadly pathogens.

Some dogs will develop adequate protection for their lifetime from their series of puppy vaccinations. For those dogs, running titers can prevent any unnecessary vaccinations over their lives. For other dogs, titers might indicate that a booster is necessary to continue with immune protection to a certain disease. Titers should be used in conjunction with vaccinations to provide your dog with the best possible shot at immunity to severe illnesses.

If your dog had a reaction to a vaccination, is on immunosuppressive medications, or has serious health problems, the situation is less black and white. You and your veterinarian will need to evaluate the risks on an individual basis, including lifestyle factors for your dog.

What You Need to Know

* Titer use is acceptable for distemper, parvo, adenovirus.

* A titer only gives you immunity status for the moment the blood was drawn.

* With a titer instead of a booster, a dog may be protected from illness but could be infectious.

* Laws may prohibit the use of a titer instead of a booster with rabies.

Titers and Puppies

Titers can be useful with a litter of puppies who have natural maternal protection from their dam in predicting when that immunity will wear off. Dr. Ron Schultz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison developed a protocol for customizing vaccination schedules for litters."A bitch can be tested for distemper and parvovirus titers (adenovirus too) during her heat cycle or pregnancy, up to one week prior to and after whelping. This is to help determine the specific date ranges necessary to maximize your puppy's vaccine responses and the immunity they develop. By doing titers, we can minimize the number of vaccines administered, maximize immune responses, and minimize adverse vaccine reactions associated with non-customized vaccine protocols."

Puppies receive maternal antibodies through the colostrum the first 12 to 24 hours after birth. Those antibodies help to protect the puppy but can also interfere with the puppy developing its own immunity. Puppy vaccination protocols "guesstimate" when the maternal immunity has waned enough that the pup will react to a vaccine and make his or her own antibodies.

The nomograph (maternal titer and predictions) gives you more precise timing as to when to vaccinate your puppy and, therefore, how many vaccines your pup will need for good immunity. This can be followed up by an individual titer testing for each pup to make sure they are protected. Titers should be run for each individual disease--distemper, parvo, and adenovirus.

What About Rabies?

Rabies can be transferred from animals to humans and is almost 100 percent fatal. For that reason, in both the United States and Canada, a positive titer is not acceptable as proof that a dog has protective immunity.

In practical terms, this means you can't substitute a positive titer in place of a revaccination if your dog is due. You may choose to avoid the vaccination, but if your dog gets involved with wildlife or biting someone, he will not be considered protected from rabies. This is true in most states. For example, New York does not recognize a rabies virus neutralizing antibody titer as a legal index of protective immunity. Some foreign countries require both proof of rabies vaccination as well as proof of a positive titer for dogs to be imported from the United States.

A few states will allow a veterinarian to write an exemption for a dog who is ill or has had bad reactions to a rabies vaccine. If your dog is exempted from having a rabies vaccine, that exemption must be updated and re-evaluated yearly. These dogs should get a titer done for your peace of mind. Age is not considered an adequate reason for exemption. Go to to see rabies data for individual states.
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Title Annotation:VACCINES
Publication:Dog Watch
Date:May 1, 2019
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