Experts agree that you absolutely should vaccinate — you just need to make sure your dog really needs it. Most vaccines last longer than the recommendations made by the manufacturers or vet associations.
When an antigen (virus, bacteria) gets into your dog's system, it produces antibodies to fight it. The resulting antibodies stay in the body for years (sometimes a lifetime), and because those antibodies already know how to successfully fight off the antigen, the dog is usually immune to the affects of that disease until the antibodies decrease.
Vaccines flood the system with dead or weakened versions of diseases and cause an immune response. The antibodies will win this battle against the weakened antigens, resulting in long-term immunity.
A titer test (pronounced TIGHT-er) is a blood test your vet can perform to measure the existence of and levels of disease antibodies in the blood. The vet will draw blood and work his or her phlebotomy magic (dilute the blood). The results are expressed as ratios. If the blood can be diluted 1,000 times and still show antibodies, the titer would be 1:1,000, which is a great result. If the titer is something like 1:2, that means the blood doesn't have to be diluted that much to stop showing antibodies, which means your dog may need a booster.
Dr. Jean Dodds, a vet and founder of Hemopet, tells us she routinely suggests titers for canine distemper and parvo, but you can have them run for any disease. It requires a separate sample of blood for each. Also note that while it's not accepted in all areas, titer tests can also be run for rabies in the case your dog bites someone, but that doesn't absolve you of adhering to the legally required vaccination schedule.
Non-core vaccines (e.g., Bordetella, Lyme, lepto, influenza) don't generally need titer testing unless your dog is in danger of exposure. If your dog isn't, don't get them; if it is, consider the titer.
How often you should titer is something you should discuss with your vet. Some recommend yearly testing (though that can get pricey), and others recommend doing it every five to seven years. Ultimately, it's your decision as the dog's owner.
Always request a copy of your dog's titer test results, so you can see for yourself what your dog's status is and have it on file if anything should happen. Note that if you have your dog boarded or go to a groomer, those people may require you to have your dog vaccinated and aren't required to accept titer results.
If your vet seems reticent about titer testing in lieu of vaccinating on schedule, present him or her with the current guidelines from one of the many veterinary associations, such as the American Veterinary Medical Association.
If your vet refuses, find one who'll do it.
Call around to local vets to find out how much they charge. It varies widely. It may be cheaper if they can do their own in-house testing. Believe it or not, some vets may not even mark up the service (only charging you for drawing the blood). If you want multiple tests done and your vet doesn't do it in-house, schedule as many as your vet thinks is safe to do at once for the same day to save on shipping. Generally, it's a little less than $100 to get parvo and distemper together.
Dr. Dodds, who provided much of the information for this article, welcomes you to check out HemoPet's website where it publishes its cost table to give you an idea. Just remember that your vet has professional time and overhead costs, so the prices there may be higher.
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