Do you have to vaccinate your dog? Here’s a closer look at your options when it comes to vaccination.

Recently, there has been a paradigm shift in veterinary medicine. Over the last few years, new research has determined that most pets do not require annual immunizations since their immune systems maintain the ability to fight off infections for several years following immunization. Now there are new vaccination recommendations you should be aware of, as well as holistic options that may help keep your animal companion in optimum shape.

New vaccination protocols have been established by a variety of medical organizations (American Veterinary Medical Association, American Animal Hospital Association, Association of Feline Practitioners) as well as the veterinary schools. These protocols were developed in response to the increasing occurrence of cancers in some cats following repeated injections, most commonly with vaccines (especially for rabies and feline leukemia vaccines.) The standard of immunization was an annual set of “shots,” determined by each individual practitioner, following the initial puppy and kitten vaccination series. While manufacturers of vaccines recommended annual immunization based upon testing to fulfill labeling requirements, no one really knew how “long a shot lasted” in the pet. We only knew that the immunization would protect the animal for at least one year.

Since the discovery of an increasing incidence of sarcoma tumors in some cats who received repeated immunization, researchers began testing cats to see just how long immunity from a vaccine might last. The goal was to try to minimize vaccinations and reduce the risk of a cat developing an injection-site sarcoma. While we still don’t know the exact maximum duration of immunity for the various vaccines (from a variety of manufacturers) for cats and dogs, preliminary research suggested that most pets maintained immunity for at least three years for the vaccines tested. As a result, the veterinary community has been slowly adopting a three-year vaccination protocol. Each year, your animal companion will receive an annual physical examination, necessary laboratory testing for degenerative diseases, and only one vaccine. The following year, the animal would receive a different vaccine. This cycling of vaccines would ensure that your pet only receives each vaccine every three years but would receive some immunization during each visit.

Titers Allow for a More Individual Approach

While this new approach is certainly preferred to the former standard, holistic veterinarians like myself prefer an even more personalized approach. Using a blood antibody test called a “vaccine titer” allows the doctor to determine each pet’s own level of immunity to various diseases. In simple terms, antibodies are proteins made by the pet’s white blood cells (specifically B lymphocytes). These antibodies are made whenever a dog or cat contacts an infectious organism (virus or bacteria, as a result of a natural infection) or is vaccinated (the vaccine uses low doses of infectious organisms, tricking the immune system into forming protective antibodies without causing disease. Using a titer test reveals each pet’s antibody status. These results are then interpreted in an attempt to determine if the animal is currently protected against a specific infectious disease or if he may require immunization. This way, your animal is only immunized when his body shows a need for immunization, rather than an arbitrary three-year interval. After all, if your companion only needs one immunization every five years, even vaccinating every three years for everything is too much.

While titer testing is preferred by many holistic veterinarians, it is not a perfect approach either. The points below outline some of the benefits of and barriers to titer testing.

Benefits of Titer Testing

  • Easy to perform
  • Inexpensive (usually under $50)
  • Gives us specific information about each individual patient, allowing the doctor and owner to make a rational and informed decision
  • Replaces the current recommendation for annual vaccination for every pet regardless of actual need

Barriers to Titer Testing

  • While inexpensive, the extra cost may prohibit some owners from taking advantage of the testing
  • Some diseases will not be titered; rather, automatic immunization will still be given. This is the case for the rabies vaccine. The three-year rabies vaccine (used by most if not all practitioners) only needs to be given every three years. Some states require more frequent immunization regardless of the three-year duration of immunity. These states may not accept titer information and would still require immunization, regardless of titer status.
  • Not all diseases produce a measurable titer. For example, antibody levels have been shown to correlate with protection against canine distemper virus, canine parvovirus, canine adenovirus, feline panleukopenia virus, and Lyme disease. Serum titers do not correlate with protection for the following diseases: kennel cough (Bordetella bronchiseptica and parainfluenza), canine coronavirus, feline enteric coronavirus, and feline chlamydial infection. Cellular immunity (rather than antibodies) provides protection against feline rhinotracheitis virus and feline infectious peritonitis virus, making titers inaccurate in interpreting protection for these diseases. Antibody levels (IgG titers) do provide information about protection against canine leptospirosis, although immunity against this disease following vaccination with inactivated leptospirosis organisms is generally believed to be short-lived (6-12 months). There is still adequate protection due to the cellular immunity the vaccines for these diseases produce.
  • Titers, like vaccines, are not perfect. There is no guarantee that a pet with an adequate titer (or an annual vaccination) will not become infected or become ill with a disease. The titer only tells us that the pet should have adequate antibodies to fight off the infectious organism and that the pet possesses the ability to mount a secondary antibody response and fight off the disease.
  • There is no agreed-upon correct titer level for determining protective titers; the “correct” level varies with the laboratory used and the type of testing done.

Why Use Titer Testing Instead of Just Vaccinating?

  • Fewer side effects:
    • Minor: Fever, stiffness, joint soreness, lethargy, decreased appetite
    • Major: Injection-site sarcomas, collapse with autoimmune hemolytic anemia (decreased red blood cell count) or thrombocytopenia (decreased platelet count), liver failure, kidney failure, bone marrow suppression, immune suppression, systemic lupus erythematosus, rheumatoid arthritis, food allergy, atopic dermatitis, glomerulonephritis/renal amyloidosis (different types of immune kidney diseases), seizures, bloating, hypothyroidism, and hyperthyroidism) from immunization.
  • True holistic approach to patient care.
  • No wasted vaccination.
  • Focus on true preventative health rather than simply preventing only infectious diseases.
  • Pets are only vaccinated with whatever is necessary based upon titer testing (no more “seven-in-one” shots for every pet every year).

While not perfect, I believe titer testing is a better option than simply vaccinating all pets every one to three years whether or not they truly need immunization.

Talk with your doctor about this more natural approach. By using vaccine titers, you’ll truly be personalizing the care you give your animal companion!