To vaccinate or not to vaccinate...
The vast majority of people want to do what is right for their pets. With the recent and abundant information about over-vaccination in animals comes the need for alternatives. One alternative: titer testing. But just what is titer testing and what all does it involve? More importantly, is it really worth it?
What the heck is a titer test?
Think of titer testing as a blood test. When you get your blood tested, your phlebotomist pokes you with a needle and collects your blood in a little vial. A few days later you get the test results and either a slap on the wrist from your doctor or a clean bill of health.
Titer tests are very similar: they measure the levels of antibodies in your pet's bloodstream. Your vet will draw blood from your pet and either send it to a lab for testing or test it in their own clinic.
Why not just vaccinate?
Vaccinations have their place and we're not going to argue that, but the majority of pets are protected years after the initial vaccine, if not for life. Vaccinosis (a fancy word for "side-effects due to vaccines") can rear it's ugly head in the form of minor reactions to severe and can include allergies, soreness, hair loss, chronic illness, abscesses, behavioral changes, and seizures. For some pets, vaccines can mean cancer, arthritis, immune deficiencies, and in some extreme cases, can be fatal.
Are there negatives to titer testing?
As with all great things, there are a couple of downsides to titer testing. The biggest downside is that titer tests only measure the levels of antibodies in the bloodstream. Left out of the test results is cell-mediated immunity: the partner component to the internal immune response. So, if titer tests are measuring the efficiency of the body's innate resistance to disease, they're really only getting half of the story.
The two parts of a single equation (but only one gets measured by a titer)
1. Antibodies: The presence of antibodies indicates the level of protection against certain diseases. As time goes on, the levels of antibodies will decrease as there is no reason for the immune system to keep producing antibodies for a disease that isn't there. This is the only factor titer tests take into account.
2. Cell-Mediated Immunity: Cell-mediated immunity, on the other hand, has to do a lot with memory cells. These cells lurk in the shadows of the immune system, quietly waiting for any clues signaling that the disease might be back. These memory cells are the ones really responsible for the duration of immunity—as soon as they get the first whiff of a familiar disease, they signal antibodies to start building up again. But because these cells are so sneaky, they cannot be measured by a titer test.
So if my dog "fails" his titer, he isn't protected?
Absolutely not. It only means that the levels of antibodies in the bloodstream are decreasing (which is what should be happening). But those memory cells are still present, lying in wait for the threat of disease to return. Should your pet ever be exposed to the virus it was once vaccinated against, antibody production will resume and the titer results will show a rise again.
Don't mistake a low titer with a lack of protection!
How much does it cost?
Well, we can measure cost in two ways.
First (and most obvious) is cash. As is all medical care, titer tests can be costly, ranging from $40 to $80+. This cost is often even higher than the cost of just re-vaccinating which is why a large majority of people don't do it. Re-vaccinating is easy and doesn't require extra days to wait for test results. And not only that, if your dog gets a titer test and his antibody count is low, you then have to add in the cost of the vaccine to your total (but remember, a low titer doesn't necessarily mean he needs another vaccine).
The second way to measure cost is with quality of life (arguably the most important aspect of life, though its much more difficult to put a price tag on it). Is re-vaccination worth the possible side-effects? Is it worth losing your pet or subjecting them to potential chronic illness? Most would answer is, "No way!"
When it comes to titer testing, find a holistic vet who understands the tests. When you titer, do it thoughtfully and intelligently. Start the conversation!