VACCINATING YOUR DOG: OVERVIEW
1. Keep accurate records of your dog's vaccination and titer history.
2. Arm yourself with accurate, credibly sourced information when having a discussion with your veterinarian about vaccine protocols.
3. Consider using antibody titer tests to accurately determine whether your dog needs to be re-vaccinated.
4. Commit to taking your dog to your veterinarian for annual checkups; consider twice-annual visits for dogs seven years of age and older.
Should you vaccinate your dog? Should your dog receive all the recommended vaccines at once? How important are common shots, like the DHPP vaccine, or rabies vaccine? Over-vaccinating dogs is a definite problem in the veterinary world, but immunizing your pet is nonetheless a necessary part of having one.
You check your mailbox and there it is: a reminder postcard from your dog’s veterinarian. If you’re like many of us dog owners, you groan and toss the card aside.
If you’ve not yet found an enlightened, up-to-date veterinarian, the postcard is likely to say, “It’s time for your dog’s annual vaccinations! Call us today for an appointment!”
We hope, however, that you’ve done your homework and found a veterinary practice whose postcards say something more like, “It’s time for your dog’s wellness examination! Call us today for an appointment!”
Educate yourself on canine vaccination practices using reputable sources so that you can have an intelligent conversation with your veterinarian on the pros and cons of vaccination for your dog; a good place to start are the AAHA Guidelines.
What’s the difference? In 2003, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) revised its vaccination guidelines, recommending that vets vaccinate adult dogs only every three years – not annually. Many enlightened veterinarians changed their canine healthcare protocols to reflect the guidelines, and now suggest annual wellness examinations with vaccinations only every three years.
Vaccines for Dogs: The Basics
Core vaccines protect animals from severe, life-threatening diseases that have global distribution. According to the AAHA, core vaccines that every dog should receive initially as a puppy (a series of three vaccines given between 8-16 weeks of age) are:
1. canine distemper (CDV)
2. canine parvovirus 2 (CPV-2)
3. canine adenovirus 2 (CAV)
The core vaccines should be administered one year later, and every three years thereafter, unless antibody titer test results indicate that the dog possesses antibody levels that have been determined to be protective.
The rabies vaccine is also considered a core vaccine, but should be given once at age 12 to 16 weeks (or as late as local law allows), then again one year later, followed by every three years. (Unfortunately, some locales require rabies vaccination more frequently than every three years, so check your local laws.)
Non-core vaccinations should be administered only to dogs whose geographical location, local environment, or lifestyle place them at risk of contracting each of the speciﬁc infections. These vaccines are:
- Bordetella bronchiseptica (kennel cough) & parainﬂuenza
- Borrelia burgdorferi (Lyme)
Note: The above recommendations are per the AAHA. Dr. Dodds advocates administration of the initial rabies vaccine after 20 weeks of age (if allowable by local law).
Be Prepared with Your Dog's Vaccination History
That said, don’t think for a minute that you need to take your dog to the vet only every three years. It’s imperative that you take your canine companions in for yearly checkups. Rather than throw that postcard in the trash, pick up the phone and call for an appointment. Yearly wellness examinations help our veterinarians develop a good baseline on our dog’s health, be better able to take notice of subtle changes in his health over time, and develop a relationship with our dog and us.
While these annual trips to the vet might now be called “wellness checks” rather than “vaccine visits,” the odds are good that the topic of vaccines will come up. And despite our good intentions, many of us head in with our dog for his annual exam and feel blindsided as the vet suggests an array of vaccines for our dogs. Often, we nod in agreement, get that “deer in the headlights” look and agree with her recommendations (she is the expert after all), then go home with regrets.
Remember the Scout motto and “Be prepared” as you get ready for your dog’s next veterinary appointment. Being prepared means more than remembering to take your dog’s leash, collar with ID, treats, and showing up on time, on the right day, with the right dog.
How to best prepare for your dog’s annual veterinary visit and be ready for a discussion on the most appropriate vaccine strategy for him?
◾Bring veterinary records and/or a list with you of your dog’s vaccination history; do not assume the veterinary clinic will have all the most recent information, especially if you’ve changed clinics. Other test dates and results to bring include most recent heartworm test, antibody titer test results, and blood and/or urinalysis test results. Ideally, you’ll collect all the data ahead of time and enter into a table so that you have a timeline of the pet’s life.
Often its best to have a health record with dates of every vaccine, deworming, flee/tick treatment, and any other treatments available at a glance... See the link for Health record
◾Have a clear idea in your mind whether you want/need your dog to receive any vaccinations (and for which diseases), an antibody titer test, or none of the above. If you are unsure, cultivate a good understanding of the vaccines available. And ask your veterinarian if any particular vaccines are warranted due to conditions in the area in which you live.
◾Educate yourself using reputable sources so that you can have an intelligent conversation with your veterinarian on the pros and cons of vaccination for your dog; a good place to start are the AAHA Guidelines. Writings and research by Ronald Schultz, PhD, DACVIM, and Jean Dodds, DVM, are also excellent references.
◾Know the status of your dog’s health, and whether he has any health or behavioral issues that your veterinarian should be aware of.
◾Bring a list of your dog’s current medications and supplements, including dose, strength, and frequency.
◾Have an idea of what the visit will cost, including any tests, to avoid sticker shock or making hasty (bad) decisions based solely on price. Call ahead.
◾Be prepared to take your dog and go home if you are uncomfortable with your veterinarian’s recommendations. There’s no need to get nasty or defensive. We suggest something along the lines of, “I’m not sure I’m comfortable with those recommendations. I’d like to go home and think about them.”
If you are going to see a veterinarian who is new to you and your dog, consider making an appointment with the veterinarian, without your dog, to discuss her philosophy toward vaccinations and antibody titer tests.
your veterinarian suggesting that your dog is "due" for certain vaccines does NOT mean your dog must have those vaccines!
How Antibody Titer Tests May Affect Your Decisions
Antigens are any substance that the immune system identifies as an invader and responds to by producing a chemical defense: antibodies. When everything is working as it should, your dog’s immune system will recognize disease antigens that were introduced to his system via a vaccine (weakened or killed) or by natural exposure to the antigen that causes the disease (viral or bacterial).
A “titer” is a measurement of how much antibody to a certain antigen is circulating in the blood at that moment. The result is usually expressed in a ratio. A positive titer test result is strongly correlated with a good antibody response to either a recent infection or vaccination. A dog who has received “core” vaccines and who displays a positive antibody titer test result should be considered protected from the diseases for which he was vaccinated (meaning, he doesn’t need vaccines at that time). See "Vaccine Titer Tests," for more insight.
Your dog must undergo a blood draw in order to have an antibody titer test. Labs such as Antech, IDEXX, and most veterinary college laboratories offer these tests. Antibody titer testing is typically run for parvovirus and distemper, since the dog’s antibody response to these two antigens is highly predictive as to the dog’s immunologic competence in dealing with any other antigen to which he has been exposed.
Rarely, there are exceptions. When an antibody titer test is negative, the owner and veterinarian should consider revaccinating and then testing the titers again. It may turn out that the animal simply needed another exposure to the antigen in order to stimulate a stronger immune response. Or, it may develop that the dog lacks the ability to respond normally to vaccines, that is, by mounting a proper immune response. In this case, the owner and veterinarian have gained very valuable information about the dog’s compromised immune status – information they never would have gained by simply vaccinating and assuming the dog was “protected,” as is usually the case with healthy dogs.
If You Choose to Vaccinate Your Dog
If you determine that your dog is in need of vaccination, consider the following:
◾Ask the veterinarian to perform the health exam and other tests first; you might even wait to vaccinate until those results are in, and schedule a follow-up vaccine visit once you know your dog is in the clear, health-wise.
◾At a minimum, try to schedule the rabies vaccine for a different visit than the other vaccines, if your dog needs them. The rabies vaccine should be administered by itself at a later date, apart from the other three “core” vaccines (distemper, parvo-virus, and adenovirus), and in another part of the dog’s body.
If you’re considering vaccinating simply for financial reasons (because vaccines cost less than running a titer test) a well-planned vaccine/titer strategy might have you coming out ahead in the long run if you scale back on vaccines and run titers on a strategically planned schedule.
Veterinary medicine today has advanced to the point of acknowledging that there is no single “perfect” vaccine program; vaccine programs must be tailored to the specific needs of each animal. Although there is a tendency to want to treat all dogs the same, the program should be designed for the individual, not the masses. The dog’s health, age, environment, activities, lifestyle, and whether he has previously had any adverse vaccine reactions all need to figure in to the equation.
It’s Up to You to Make Vaccination Decisions
Don’t expect your veterinarian to ask you broadly what you want to do when you take your dog in for an annual exam. Most veterinarians, unless prompted by the client, will assume that you’re there for “the usual” and will go ahead and recommend annual vaccinations. It is up to you to educate yourself and advocate for your dog and know what vaccines and tests might benefit him, and to know the laws concerning how frequently the rabies vaccine must be administered.
Lisa Rodier is a frequent contributor to WDJ. She lives in Alpharetta, Georgia, with her husband and two Bouviers, and volunteers with the American Bouvier Rescue League.
For most of us who share our lives with dogs, making sure they are vaccinated tops the list of preventive-care tasks. We mindfully take our puppies or newly adopted dogs for their recommended
vaccines. We routinely return to our veterinarian or vaccine clinic when that postcard or email arrives, reminding us that our dogs are due for booster shots. We know vaccination offers critical
protection from diseases such as canine parvovirus, canine distemper virus, rabies and more.
However, many of us question the concept of “routine” when it comes to vaccinations. While grateful for the protection that vaccines offer, we are increasingly aware of their possible unintended consequences. After all, people are not continuing to be re vaccinated as adults for every disease. That’s where titer testing comes in.
Titer tests are among the tools that dog owners and veterinarians can use to help minimize the risks of both infectious diseases and unnecessary vaccinations. Simply put, these tests can tell you if a previous vaccine is still protecting your dog. If it’s still working, you don’t have to revaccinate.
Dr. Evelyn Sharp a Vet in Santa Cruz, Calif., has used titer tests with her own dogs since she began practicing veterinary medicine in the mid-1990s. The first dog she regularly tested was her Border Collie mix, Ace. Titers showed that the protection provided by Ace’s initial puppy series and one-year booster lasted the rest of his life. With the recent availability of in-practice titer-test kits—VacciCheck from Biogal Laboratories and TiterCHEK from Synbiotics Corporation—titer testing has become even easier to do.
Because the newer titer-test kits are affordable, accurate and can be run inhouse (rather than by a lab), Dr. Sharp now suggests titer testing as part of preventive care. With the information she gets from the titers, she can provide a customized vaccination protocol for each dog, keeping the dog well protected while minimizing the risks of over-vaccination.
The most recent American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) Canine Vaccination Guidelines say that reported side effects from vaccines vary from injection-site reactions, lethargy, lack of appetite and fever to more serious adverse events, including allergic reactions, autoimmune problems and, rarely, sarcoma or other tumors. The decision about when to vaccinate requires a risk/benefit analysis. Most experts agree that vaccines are critical to the overall health and wellness of our dogs (and cats), but many also agree that giving a vaccine when it is not needed exposes animals to unnecessary hazards.
So what exactly is involved in titer testing? A “titer” is a method of measuring antibodies in a blood sample for specific diseases. Your vet will draw a small amount of blood and then run that blood through the test. Titers are usually expressed as a ratio; if the titer number is high, it means that your dog has enough antibodies to fight off that specific disease and is considered to have immunity from infection. For many of our dogs, that immunity is the result of a previous vaccine. However, immunity can also develop because a dog had the disease in the past. Either way, a high titer means your dog is protected.
If the test shows a low titer, your dog may not have immunity. The interesting and perhaps odd detail (odd, at least, from a layperson’s viewpoint) is that a low titer is not completely definitive. A dog may still have some protection. Still, the accepted standard with the in-house test kit is that a low titer means that you and your veterinarian should discuss revaccinating.
Just as vaccine prices vary, the price of a titer test can also vary from veterinary practice to veterinary practice. According to Dr. Sharp, the VacciCheck tests three diseases—parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus (canine hepatitis)— and generally runs between $45 and $80, which is a little more than most vaccines, but not unreasonably high.
AAHA vaccine guidelines say that titer testing is an appropriate way to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus. However, it is not recommended for canine leptospirosis, bordetella or Lyme disease, because these vaccines only provide short-term protection.
Rabies vaccines do provide long-term protection, and the titer tests for rabies are also considered to be a very accurate measure of immunity. However, vaccination against rabies is mandated by law and at this time, no state in the U.S. accepts titer-test results in lieu of vaccination history. If your dog bites someone, she will still need to be quarantined, even if a titer test shows she has immunity. Specific types of rabies titer tests are used, however, when moving to rabies-free countries or regions—for example, Hawaii, Guam, Japan, New Zealand or Great Britain. In this case, the rabies titer test will help qualify a dog for a shorter quarantine.
Along with using titer tests to check for immunity to parvovirus, distemper and adenovirus in a previously vaccinated adult dog, titers are also a good option for a newly adopted dog whose vaccination or health history you may not know. In addition, a titer test may be used to make sure young puppies have responded to the initial vaccine series and are fully protected. If a pup did not respond, the vaccine may have been compromised, the mother’s immunity may still be active or the pup may be a non-responder (meaning she will not have an immune reaction to vaccines). Your veterinarian can help you decide on the best course of action if your pup does not have an acceptable titer.
While vaccinating animals against infectious diseases is critical to protecting individual dogs and communities at large, over-vaccinating is also a real concern for those of us who share our lives with dogs. Titer tests give us another tool and can help when it comes time to discuss vaccines with our veterinarian and make the best health-care decisions for our dogs.
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