This morning I received a phone call from a woman who adopted a dog I fostered about 1.5 years ago.  This dog was out of a sire who developed epilepsy (and subsequently ended up being put down) shortly after he was born.  When we took this dog in, he was 8 months old.  He’d received all his puppy shots including one rabies vaccine.  There is a very strong correlation between vaccines and the onset of seizure activity, so the rescue group worked very hard at finding him a good home that agreed never to vaccinate him again.  We were delighted that he ended up going to a home where he would be actively working as a goose dog for the city, as well as do herding and agility for fun.

Unfortunately, the city required that he be kept “up to date” with vaccines and tried to force his adopter to vaccinate him this spring.  She called me in distress, and I encouraged her to discuss doing titers instead.  This was accepted, and she proceeded with the bloodwork.

This morning she called me to say that the titer results came back.  

To be considered “protected from challenge,” a dog’s titer needs to be 0.5 UI per ml.  This dog’s results came back at 3.7 UI per ml.  That’s 7.4 times what he needs to be considered “immune” to rabies.  So clearly he doesn’t need to be vaccinated.  In fact, the vet said his levels were so high that he didn’t even need to be tested again for at least 2 years.  The vet also suggested not vaccinating her other dog and just doing titers on him in a couple of years as well.

The dog in question is 2.5 years old and has only ever received one rabies vaccine, at age 4 months.  More than two years later he is testing at over 7 times the required level to be considered safe.  If more people did titers like this, vets would see how unnecessary even doing the “booster” after puppy shots is, let alone additional vaccines as the dog ages.  

If you are planning to do titers here are two points to remember:

1) Titers do not measure immunity, they measure the number of antibodies in the blood.  The body only produces antibodies if it is exposed to the virus in question.  So you can end up with a very low or zero titer if the dog hasn’t been exposed to what you are testing for in a while.  But the dog will most likely still have the required memory cells to mount an immune response if necessary.  To ensure that you end up with an accurate titer result, be sure to take your dog to areas that have been heavily frequented by other dogs (such dog trials, dog parks or parks where lots of dogs are run) so that your dog is exposed to vaccine shed, which will contain the viruses you are testing for.  If possible, repeat this a number of times over a two week window (it takes 14 days to mount a full immune response) before doing the test.  This will ensure that if the memory cells are functional, they will produce the antibodies that are to be measured in sufficient number to give a very clear result.

2) Depending on where you live, titers can be very expensive.  If this is the case for you, look into having your dog’s blood tested by Hemopet, Jean Dodd’s on-line blood lab.  Your vet can draw the blood and spin it down (as per instructions on Dr. Dodd’s website), and then you courier the blood to her lab.  There is no problem shipping blood serum across the border from Canada to the US.  Going through Hemopet will typically end up being cheaper than doing titers locally, even with shipping charges.

One final note.  Most dogs who have been previously vaccinated at some point in their lives will have immunity to the acute form of that disease.  Giving additional vaccines does not “top up” their immunity, nor does it make them any more immune.  Yearly vaccines only serve to stimulate the immune system in ways that can lead to a number of health and behaviour problems.  Furthermore, distemper and parvo are essentially puppy diseases and a healthy adult dog will only get mildly ill, if ill at all, if exposed.  So doing titers really are no more necessary than updating vaccines.  As such, I advocate doing titers for two reasons only:

1) If you absolutely must know the status of your dog’s immune system for peace of mind.  A cheaper way of going about this is to read more on the topic until you become comfortable with the likelihood that he or she is quite immune after puppy shots.  Indeed dogs can develop immunity to parvo and distemper, and even rabies, even without puppy shots.  The vaccines only serve as a vehicle of exposure so that the body can mount an immune response and develop memory cells for future encounters with the disease(s) in question. The body can do this quite well without vaccines if it is exposed in other ways to the diseases, such as encountering them directly in nature, or through the vaccine shed of other recently vaccinated dogs (dogs will pee out vaccine, including the modified live virus it contains, for up to 45 days post vaccination).  

2) You need proof of immunity for legal purposes, such as to avoid having to give a rabies shot per local law.  The community I live in, thank goodness, accepts rabies titers in lieu of the vaccine.  Someone had to go to court over this, but that was before I moved here and for that I am forever grateful.  I believe more and more communities are moving to this option.  Even though the rabies titer is expensive, what it will save you in vet bills and heartache should your dog be damaged by the vaccine is more than well worth the investment.