Updated April 3rd, 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These blogs are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story!
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