Titre Testing vs Vaccination

Updated November 28, 2020

Does titre testing mean dogs and cats need a lot less vaccination? That’s certainly what you read online.

The truth is more complicated than that.

I’m not here to criticise: titre testing has an important role in protecting dogs (and cats- see below). But there are also some important myths and misunderstandings that need to be cleared up if you want to make an informed decision.

What Is Titre Testing?

Titre testing, or titer testing in the USA, is the use of antibody levels from a blood sample to decide if an animal needs vaccination or not. Instead of just giving vaccines at the scheduled intervals, it allows a vaccine to be skipped and avoids the risk of over-vaccination.

To explain, look at the graph which shows how immunity might be lost after a vaccine. To protect every dog, we need to give the booster when the first dogs start losing immunity. That could be where I’ve put the red arrow, even though at least 95% of dogs don’t need it yet. Up to now we’ve not been able to work out which dogs they are.

adult pet vaccination

Titre testing could identify these dogs, and show that the others are OK.

You can see why this sounds great to many people, and why there’s a lot of excitement. We get so many enquiries that it’s time to explain titre tests properly.

The Benefits Of Titre Tests

Choosing titre testing is about weighing up the pros and cons.

Pro: Less Over-Vaccination

Over-vaccination is the idea that too many vaccines can cause illness. The point of titre tests is therefore to be able to see if a dog really needs a vaccine. Most of the time they don’t, but without a test you’re playing Russian roulette.

Do vaccines cause illness though? Most vets would say there isn’t enough of a problem to be concerned, but plenty of dog owners feel otherwise. If you want to explore this topic in more depth, I’ve written a whole article about vaccine reactions in pets.

Con: Reliability

You may have already wondered how we decide when a titre level is protective, and when it isn’t. You might then be surprised by these two points:

  1. Titre levels have never been tested. Vaccines undergo challenge studies where real dogs are given real virus to show that they work, but ‘protective’ titre levels are only theoretical. We also don’t know what these titres mean for the newer strains of parvo. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they are wrong, just less reliable.
  2. There are two arms of the immune system. Titre tests only measure antibody-based immunity. For some diseases, cell-mediated immunity is the more important, and so we are assuming that an adequate antibody titre means adequate cell-mediated immunity too. It’s probably true, but it’s still only an assumption.

Con: Cost

Titre tests need to be done at least as often as you would give the vaccine. That means annually for an annual vaccine or every 3 years for a triennial vaccine. Sadly, despite the new and cheaper VacciCheck kits, tests still cost significantly more than a vaccine

My concern is that this might make people stop vaccination but not keep up the essential regular titre testing over a dog’s lifetime.

Con: Most Dogs Still Need Vaccines

Titre tests are only available for parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis. However, social dogs in towns and cities in Australia need canine cough vaccination too (read about each disease by following the links).

Canine cough is common, and vaccination is always annual. In our clinic, we use a triennial parvovirus, distemper and hepatitis C3 vaccine and an annual canine cough vaccine to make it up to a C5. If a client chose to start titre testing, the only change would be that their dog may not need the C3 part of the vaccine every third year.

Titre Testing For Cats

Titre tests are also available for herpes, calicivirus and panleucopaenia in cats via Gribbles Veterinary Pathology in Australia. As there is no in-clinic test kit, prices are approximately double those of dogs.

When To Use Titre Tests

So what situations are best for titre tests? Certainly, the number one reason is for dogs and cats that have had genuine vaccine reactions in the past.

In practice, titre tests are mostly requested by people who want to avoid vaccination as much as possible. That’s OK: titre tests are a lot better than doing nothing at all.

Then there are the dogs with unknown histories, such as at shelters. They could be titre tested on arrival. However, as shelters always need to keep costs down, I’ll bet they’ll prefer to give a vaccine regardless.

However, for average dog owners, I generally find that once I explain what I’ve said here, they prefer to continue using vaccines. Remember, a triennial program already reduces the vaccine in question by two-thirds.

Lastly, I promise you that we’re just as happy for a dog owner to make any decision, if it’s an informed one. As long as you still bring your dog in for annual health checks, we’ll be happy vets.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

4 Replies to “Titre Testing vs Vaccination”

  1. Last year, my (then) 7-year old toy poodle appeared to have a reaction to her annual vaccinations (C3, kennel cough, heartworm), in that within 30 minutes she appeared lethargic, had swollen lips and redness around her eyes. Took her back and she was given a an antihistamine and things returned to normal. I’d forgotten about that but when I took her in this year, her vet suggested that we consider titre testing instead of (at least) the C3. I’m doing my research before deciding whether to do that or take the chance of vaccinating. If you feel able to give them, I’d be grateful for your thoughts. Thank you.

    1. Hi Gary. If your vets are happy to titre test, then it’s quite reasonable to follow their advice. However, it’s also likely that the vaccine will not provoke a reaction this year. We often find that it varies as vaccines are never the same from batch to batch. Additionally, most of the time an antihistamine, given 10 minutes prior is helpful.

  2. my pup had a C3, then a C5 and the vet I go to in Qld wants to give a C4; my question is as she had a C5 which I believe incorporates the C4, should not her her third vaccination only be another C3 am I correct or not.
    The original C3 was given by another vet in NSW and the brand was Nobivac DHP and this Vet uses Protech, is there a difference in the brands performance? Do not seem to be able to get a professional answer on this, also there is a considerable cost difference for the C3 between the nsw Vet and Qld Vet. Perhaps you would be kind enough to enlighten me on the differences as I do not believe in over vaccinating when it’s not necessary
    Many thanks

    1. Hi Robin – The issue here is probably both of the variation in vaccine label claims and the preferences of each vet. However, there is also likely to be a price difference based on the bulk price that a vet gives a breeder versus the price for an individual vaccination (which includes a consultation fee).
      In your case, a few thoughts come to mind. If the C5 did not include an intranasal kennel cough vaccine, then in fact it needs to be a C5 that is repeated, not a C4 unless you want incomplete vaccination. Of course, kennel cough is not the most essential part of the vaccine, but it is still important.
      Secondly, Protech vaccines have a label claim of protection against parvovirus from 10 weeks of age. Therefore, although I certainly recommend a 16 week shot as well, you are welcome to decline a third vaccination based on the label claim. That means if there is a vaccine failure and the vaccine was given under correct circumstances, it is probably the vaccine manufacturer who is liable.
      C4 vaccines are rarely used these days as we are either going for full C5 or C3 (in fact our 16 week vaccination is a parvovirus-only vaccine, essentially a C1!)
      Lastly, there is probably no great difference in performance between Nobivac and Protech vaccines, although personally I use Nobivac.
      I’m sorry if this just makes it all seem more confusing!If it helps, I’ve compared the age for vaccination with different brands here.

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