Vaccine Antibody Titers: Are They a Good Choice for Your Dog?
Perhaps you know a little bit about antibody titers (aka, vaccine titers, vaccine serology, and titer testing), but find the topic to be confusing. Rest assured, you are in good company. The topic is somewhat complicated, and recommendations as to how to use antibody titers vary widely.
Until relatively recently, antibody titer testing was quite pricey and involved sending the dog’s blood sample to a specialty laboratory. The testing process is now far more affordable and readily available. It can be performed right in the veterinary hospital with results provided during the course of an office visit. 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.
Antibodies and the immune system
Our immune systems have the amazing ability to recognize and then get rid of things that should not be in our bodies, such as bacteria and viruses. There are two major defense strategies by which the immune system operates, and both are involved in preventing diseases such as canine distemper, adenovirus, parvovirus, and rabies.
Antibodies are the first line of immune protection. These protein molecules act as efficient foot soldiers within the bloodstream that attack and defend against the “bad guys.” When we measure antibody titers, we assess this component of the immune system.
The second arm of immune system protection is referred to as cell mediated immunity. As the name implies, specific cells within the body (phagocytes and lymphocytes) are activated to capture the “bad guys.” These cells also release substances that trigger ongoing immune system activity. The function of this portion of the immune system can be measured, but only in highly specialized laboratories. Antibody titers provide no information whatsoever about cell mediated immunity.
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. The component of the blood used for the test is called serum- hence the term “vaccine serology.”
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.
Current in-hospital test kits allow determination of antibody titers against canine distemper, parvovirus and adenovirus. 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.
Interpreting antibody titer test results
In theory, antibody titer testing provides a “yes” or “no” answer as to whether or not the animal has adequate immune protection against a particular disease. Unfortunately, things are not one hundred percent black and white. Here are a few caveats to consider:
- In hospital test kit results are based on color change. This introduces an element of subjectivity on the part of the person interpreting the results.
- On the color scale there is a gray zone that can be difficult to interpret as positive or negative.
- This testing assesses antibodies only. The other arm of immune protection (cell mediated immunity) is not evaluated. Therefore, one cannot be 100% certain that complete immune protection is present, even if testing documents an adequate antibody level.
- Likewise, if the antibody concentration is interpreted as inadequate, it’s possible that cell mediated immunity is adequate enough to deliver immune protection.
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 rare occasion, they can be life threatening. The American Animal Hospital Association defines immunization as “a medical procedure with definite benefits and risks, and one that should be undertaken only with individualization of vaccine choices and after input from the client.”
I recall a much-beloved Dachshund named Henry, who was five years old when I met him. He’d received a distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus vaccination two weeks prior and was suffering from a horrific vaccine reaction. The vaccine triggered Henry’s immune system to attack and destroy his own platelets- blood cells necessary for normal blood clotting. He was bleeding internally. Though we tried to stop the bleeding with transfusions and medications, we lost the battle, and poor Henry passed away. Poor Henry’s vaccination was hardly a “routine procedure.”
Using antibody titers wisely
I encourage 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:
Puppies: After completion of the puppy vaccination series at 14-16 weeks of age, an antibody titer can be used to verify that adequate protection has been achieved. If not, revaccination for distemper, parvovirus, and adenovirus at 18-20 weeks of age is indicated.
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. (Picture me shaking my head in disbelief as I type this.) If, for some reason, you insist on continuing to work with such a veterinarian, I encourage you to opt for antibody testing in order to avoid subjecting your dog to the risks of unnecessary vaccinations.
Is serology right for you and your dog?
There is no “right” or “wrong” here. After reading all of this, you may think that vaccine serology is the right way to go. Or, you may opt to forego antibody titers and simply revaccinate your dog every three years. Either way, you will be stepping up to the plate as your dog’s informed medical advocate. Way to go!
Resistance from your veterinarian
If your veterinarian is opposed to vaccine serology or, worse yet, he or she is hell-bent 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 I 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, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot and Your Dog’s Best Health are available at http://www.speakingforspot.com