Note: This post is NOT anti-vaccine. The initial course of vaccines during the first year of a pet’s life is crucial and can save them (and sometimes us) from fatal diseases. This post simply examines the need for yearly boosters later in an animal’s life.

titerblogpicAs responsible pet owners, many of us take our animal to the vet every year for their annual check-up. This includes a physical exam, sometimes a stool sample is checked, and of course, the pet’s yearly vaccines. But wait, my pet has to be given vaccines EVERY YEAR?! I certainly don’t need boosters on my human vaccines every year. Shouldn’t the immunity last a little longer?

Previously, veterinarians have found that in research, the immunity does last longer than a year in some pets. However, when you bring your animal to your local clinic, they couldn’t look at them and determine if they still had immunity to a disease, or whether they needed a booster shot. So veterinarians have been practicing yearly boosters as a safeguard. Disease cannot spread if most of the animals it contacts are immune, and therefore vaccines keep problems like rabies and parvovirus less wide-spread. New research has shown that vaccines may sometimes cause problems in pets (tumors near injection site, gastrointestinal distress, allergies, seizures, etc.) Even mild reactions like local swelling, low-grade fevers, decreased appetite and activity are beginning to be examined for long-term results. Pet owners are starting to question if yearly vaccines are truly needed, or if this is an easy buck for the vet clinic.

Enter titer tests. Titers, in short, are when a blood sample is drawn, and checked for the concentration specific antibodies. This is a way to see if the human or animal is retaining immunity to the disease they were vaccinated for. Titers are already used in human medicine pretty regularly. If you were to be hired by a hospital, your employer may require you to have titers drawn, to make sure the vaccines you received as a child are still giving you immunity. If not, you may need a booster shot before you go to work in healthcare. Titers are now also being used in veterinary practice to determine if an animal needs to be re-vaccinated every 12 months. After receiving initial vaccines in their puppy/kitty years, your pet may retain enough antibodies to be considered immune. A vet can draw blood, perform a titer test, and determine whether or not they need a booster shot. This could potentially reduce the side effects from vaccination, whether chronic or acute problems.

Seems like a perfect solution, right? Well it isn’t without detractors. Titers can be reliable, when done in the right setting, and with certain diseases. However, for some diseases, a titer test can show plenty of antibodies in the blood, but not necessarily correlate with field immunity (if your pet is exposed to an infected animal, it may still contract the disease). Research from the AAFP Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel shows that titer tests can be used to measure immunity in a cat for feline pan leukopenia, but that titers for feline leukemia virus and feline immunodeficiency virus “do not correlate with immunity and should not be used to determine the need for vaccination”. Some states also require yearly vaccination, especially for rabies. Titers are not accepted by most counties, and they require proof (vet records) before licensing a dog. There is also a cost factor in all this. While vaccines are expensive, some titer tests are too. Look for a veterinary office that can do titer tests for a lower cost, to ensure that they aren’t just trying to push you into over-vaccinating.

So what is the best option here? As with many veterinary solutions, it still needs more research. Titers are now becoming more popular, and are done at more clinics across the country. Some doctors only want to vaccinate when the titer test comes back negative, or when required by law. Others are using titer tests annually to check immunity, but still vaccinating every three years regardless. Some do not find titer tests to be accurate enough, and will still recommend yearly boosters. The bottom line is this: YOU are your pet’s owner. YOU decide what is best. For pets that are elderly or have had an allergic reaction to a vaccine, you may want to give shots as little as possible, or only when the titers show no immunity. Other pets may be fine on the three year plan, especially if the vaccination site is rotated each time (neck/shoulder area vs thigh) to reduce irritation and tumor development. Inform yourself before taking refusing or accepting vaccines at your pet’s next visit. Beware of any articles that claim vaccines are all risk and no benefit, or clinics that only vaccinate in bundles or charge outrageous amounts of money for titers. I encourage you to talk to various veterinary clinics, do some research, and decide what the most appropriate vaccination course for your pet is.

Here are some great articles:

Other sources: American Veterinary Medical Foundation, PetMD, Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery,