Sophie Jackson is a dog lover and trainer living in the UK. She competes in agility and obedience with her four dogs.
What Is Titre Testing?
Titre (or titer) testing refers to a blood test that is done to assess a pet's level of immunity to three key diseases: parvovirus, canine distemper and hepatitis. The test checks the dog's blood for antibodies, a vital part of the immune system. Antibodies are a blood protein produced in response to infection by a virus or bacteria. Once they have been created, the body always has the blueprint for them and can quickly make them again if the body is reinfected by the same virus or bacteria.
Vaccines work by stimulating the body to create specific antibodies against parvo, hepatitis and distemper. They do this without actually infecting the dog with these deadly diseases, and are a low-risk way of encouraging immunity. This does not prevent the dog from picking up these viruses but, if the dog does, the body already knows how to deal with them and the dog is able to fight the conditions off and maybe not become sick at all. Importantly, once a dog's body has antibodies, it does not need to be reminded how to create them again; they are ready for use at any moment.
Is Titre Testing an Alternative to Vaccines?
Traditionally, dogs are vaccinated every year to ensure they are fully protected against certain diseases. The idea being that yearly vaccinations will boost a dog's immunity. There is uncertainty about how long vaccines are effective for and as there was no means before titre testing of determining whether a dog was fully protected or not, the only option was to keep vaccinating.
Over the last couple of decades, there has been growing concern about whether constantly vaccinating dogs is really necessary and whether it could, in fact, be harmful. Titre testing offers owners a chance to determine if their dogs need to have their annual booster or not.
Many vets now offer titre testing as an alternative to annual vaccinations, however, it should be noted that this does not mean dogs should receive no vaccinations at all. The only way a dog can obtain immunity for a virus or bacteria is for it to come into contact with it - this could be through puppy vaccinations, where the infection is introduced to the body so antibodies can be created, or through exposure to the actual disease.
Vaccines are a low-risk way of obtaining immunity. While they are not risk-free, serious reactions are rare and they provide a reasonably safe way of helping the body create antibodies. In contrast, exposure to the diseases the vaccines protect against (for instance, parvovirus) can be fatal, especially in puppies, and may have a long-term consequence on the dog's health.
Titre testing does not replace vaccination, but it does enable an owner to determine how effective those vaccinations have been.
Why Titre Test Rather Than Booster?
With advances in veterinary research, it has been shown that vaccines do not simply run out after a year and many last a lifetime with one shot. As far back as 2005, veterinarian Jean Dodds told NBC news:
"We know that for [canine] distemper and parvo, for example, the immunity lasts a minimum of five years, probably seven to nine years, and for some individuals for a lifetime.”
More concerning is that repeated vaccination could be harmful to your pet's health. Holistic vet Patricia Jordan states that vaccinations can cause "...dangerous, sometimes deadly, vaccine reactions and lifelong chronic illness … including autoimmune diseases and cancer."
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Dr Ronald Schultz is professor and chair of pathobiological sciences at the School of Veterinary Medicine in Wisconsin and has been researching vaccination and immunity in dogs since the 1970s. Through his research, he has become convinced that vaccinating on a yearly basis is unnecessary and might even lead to adverse reactions:
“These adverse reactions have caused many veterinarians to rethink the issue of vaccination. The idea that unnecessary vaccines can cause serious side effects is in direct conflict with sound medical practices.”
Schultz titre tests his pets instead of vaccinating each year. Schultz also comments that some dogs may be genetically predisposed to suffering bad reactions to vaccinations. Dogs that have the MDR1 (Multi-Drug-Resistance-1) gene are unable to remove certain drugs from the brain as well as dogs without the gene. As a result, toxins can build up in the brain when the dog is exposed to common medicines and lead to seizures, blindness, loss of muscle control and even death.
Dogs with the MDR1 gene can be badly affected by certain antibiotics, flea treatments, pain medications and sedatives. The gene is regularly found in herding breeds (Collies, Shelties, Australian Shepherds, etc) and has been anecdotally linked to the rise of epilepsy in border collies. While there is no firm evidence that vaccinations can trigger a reaction in MDR1 dogs, many owners prefer not to over-vaccinate a pet carrying the gene just in case.
How Do I Titre Test?
Some vets offer titre testing as part of their clinic services, but not all vets do and the charges for the service can vary considerably. Therefore, shopping around for the best price may become necessary.
VacciCheck is the leading provider of testing in the UK and US and it offers a highly competitive price. VacciCheck is a reliable test that costs test between £20-50 in the UK, however, vets may also charge a consultation fee which increases the cost. Other versions of the test can have a considerably higher cost (up to £100) depending on where they are sent to be processed. (You can find a vet that offers VacciCheck via their Facebook page.)
The cost of titre testing can be off-putting, especially if you have more than one dog, while the cost of boosters is considerably less. Owners, therefore, need to make a choice based on their concerns about vaccinations and their individual dogs. Many owners wonder if a titre test is a one-off, or should be done yearly. There are no specific guidelines for this, and some vets do recommend annual testing, while others suggest testing every three years or even up to seven.
Immunity does not switch on and off, argues Dr. Schultz, the dog's immune system has what he terms 'memory cells' which go into action to produce antibodies when exposed to a virus or bacteria that it has encountered before. Theoretically, once a dog has been tested and shown immunity for a disease, then it should always be protected. Repeated tests may not be necessary, but as this is still a very new product, many vets and owners feel it is safest to test regularly.
Titre Test Problems
Titre testing is a very straightforward procedure, but there are a few potential issues with it that should be considered:
- The test in itself is very safe as it is just a blood test. However, some dogs may find the test stressful, and occasionally it may be difficult to get enough blood to test. This could be due to the dog struggling, or due to veins being small, or collapsing as the blood is drawn. Much like in some people, who have trouble giving blood, there can be dogs who just don't seem to have 'willing' veins.
- The test only covers parvovirus, canine distemper and hepatitis. It cannot test for leptospirosis or kennel cough antibodies.
- It does cost more than traditional boosters, and this cost may be off-putting for some, especially as it is unclear how often dogs should be re-tested.
- The results of the test can appear confusing and may require explanation by a vet. They usually state a level of immunity ranging from good or high, to poor or low. Sometimes this is stated in numbers, with a higher number being better. What this indicates is how many antibodies were discovered in a test sample. High levels of antibodies are considered best, but even a low figure indicates the dog has immunity.
- Results that show no immunity in a dog that has been previously vaccinated for a certain disease can raise the dilemma of re-vaccination. For instance, suppose a dog shows high levels of antibodies for parvo and distemper, but no immunity for hepatitis. Most vets offer a triple vaccine, that contains all three of these diseases, thus you cannot easily vaccinate for just hepatitis, but must vaccinate for all of the diseases, and this can cause anxiety as you will end up over-vaccinating for at least one of them.
- Similarly, some dogs will never receive immunity from a vaccination, no matter how often it is given, thus they will show a negative score in a titre test, but does that mean they should be vaccinated again? The reasons why some dogs do not respond to vaccinations is unclear. It is a known problem in people and it is thought that in some cases the reason is genetic, and no matter how many times a person receives a vaccination, they will never develop an immunity from it. Dogs may have been boostered every year of their lives, then titre tested to show they have no immunity—do you then vaccinate that dog again, knowing that it has never responded to the vaccine in the past? It is a difficult question for owners, and has to be made on a case by case basis.
Overall, the titre test is very safe and if it avoids potential health issues from over-vaccinating, then it is something that every owner should consider. More and more vets are now considering it as an option, which can only be good for the long-term well being of our pets. While it is not an alternative to vaccination, it does show if that vaccine has worked and can give peace of mind to owners.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2019 Sophie Jackson