Vaccinations and titre-testing in dogs

The most frequently raised questions and concerns on this hotly debated topic!

What are titres and what is ‘titre-testing’?

‘Titre’ (or Titer in American) is a scientific term used to describe the concentration of something — in this case antibodies in blood. Titre-testing therefore refers to testing of the concentration of antibodies in the blood against various common diseases.

What are antibodies?

Antibodies are tiny substances produced the body’s immune system which are able to recognise harmful disease-causing germs (including bacteria, viruses and fungi) and then stick to the germ and act as marker flags to direct the body’s immune system (composed of circulating white blood cells) to destroy the germ concerned.

Where do these antibodies come from?

Animals are born without any antibodies and therefore have no natural protection again disease. The body needs to have contact with these diseases for the immune system to recognise them and produce highly specific antibodies against these diseases. A small number of antibodies are acquired from the mother’s milk/colostrum at birth but these only survive for a few weeks (usually around 6-8 weeks). These antibodies actually prevent an animal developing its own antibodies which is why vaccination courses are started after this point. However beyond this stage an animal must produce its own antibodies to maintain protection.

When is an animal considered to be ‘immune’ to a disease?

An animal is only considered to be immune (fully protected) to a disease when it has a sufficient concentration (or ‘titre’) of antibodies defeat an infection. Antibodies can therefore be considered to be soldiers in an army — they can only win battles if there are enough of them present.

Which diseases are commonly vaccinated against?

The main diseases that are vaccinated against include Distemper, Parvovirus, Hepatitis, Parainfluenza, Leptospirosis and in some instances Bordetella (KennelCough). More details of these diseases can be found here:

How does vaccination work?

Vaccination works by administering killed (‘inactivated’) or weakened (‘modified live’) versions of the diseases. These are usually combined with an ‘adjuvant’ which is a substance that helps draw the attention of the immune system to the bugs which means that a lower number needs to be administered to create a satisfactory immune response. To produce a good response, two doses are usually needed two to four weeks apart as the immunity produced by the first dose is often very short-lived.

Can immunity be acquired from elsewhere?

Immunity can be acquired through contact with the disease itself. Some dogs could be lucky and develop a very rapid and robust immune response to the disease so that they do not develop severe symptoms but obviously this is risky as they could develop full-blown parvovirus or distemper which could be fatal.

How long does this immunity last for?

The immune system of each animal is very different. Some animals will maintain a protective level of immunity for almost a lifetime from a single vaccination against diseases like Parvovirus whereas others may need re-vaccination every couple of years. The diseases and vaccines are all different as well — the immunity to Leptospirosis for example is very short-lived and rarely extends beyond 18 months in any animal which is why annual re-vaccination is often advised.

Are all these diseases found in this area?

Foxes act as a reservoir for all these diseases in this area though fortunately cases of distemper are very rare. However we have seen more cases of distemper locally due to the relaxation of animal movement into the UK – Distemper it is still the main killer of dogs in continental Europe by a huge margin. Parvovirus is extremely common in this area and found in most local parks. Fortunately fairly high levels of vaccination amongst dog owners generally in the UK has massively decreased the incidence of diseases like Distemper creating a degree of so-called ‘herd immunity’. However once vaccination levels drop below 70-80% there is a risk of the diseases resurfacing which is why it is important to maintain a good level of immunity within the population.

Is protection against all of them needed?

Protection against Parainfluenza and Bordetella (two causes of KennelCough) is not essential as most healthy animals will make a spontaneous and full recovery. However some dogs can be very poorly with it and may develop pneumonia. Bordetella in particular can cause lasting damage to the airways in some instances. However, as with human flus and colds there are increasingly different causes and strains of Kennel Cough which means that complete protection is not guaranteed.

Dogs that don’t go very far from home or don’t encounter much in the way of wildlife or water may be fine without Leptospirosis vaccination but it is difficult to eliminate the risk entirely and animals of all ages and types tend to be equally susceptible.

Where does titre-testing come into this?

Titre-testing enables us to measure the amount of antibodies that a dog has to the three main viral diseases — Distemper, Hepatitis and Parvovirus (DHP). It is not possible to test for protection to Lepto or Bordetella as the immunity against these bacterial diseases is rather different and high levels of antibodies are generally only seen when an animal is fighting disease. However studies have determined that the protection against these bacterial diseases is generally short-lived i.e. less than 18 months.

Titre-testing can therefore be used:

  • Annually to check whether re-vaccination with these main diseases is necessary
  • A month or so after the primary vaccination course to check to see whether the vaccination course has been There is evidence that in a small proportion of dogs a third vaccination may be necessary 6-8 weeks after the initial two vaccinations.

What if the titres are low?

This suggests that re-vaccinating with DHP is needed. A one-off vaccine is usually all that is need in animals that have previously had a full primary vaccination course.

No single vaccine is available for Distemper or Hepatitis so generally if one of these three is low then it will be a case of administering all three.

Should we all be titre-testing?

This is very much down to personal choice. Most vets now are doing a greatly reduced vaccination program based on the ‘average’ immunity that the vaccines are known to produce and according to the average lifestyle of a dog in that particular area. For most people that would mean a full DHP every three or four years and a Lepto annually (plus Bordetella and Parinfluenza for KennelCough if desired or requested by Kennels, dog sitters etc).

Should we be fearful of vaccinating?

Everyone has read and heard horror stories about vaccine reactions but fortunately with most modern vaccines they are extremely rare. Again, every animal is different and there may be some animals that are more sensitive to the ill-effects but studies have shown that these are not long lasting and do not cause diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart problems etc

At Natterjacks we don’t make a profit from vaccinations (it is a time consuming nuisance!) and only administer what we believe is absolutely necessary for the ‘average’ dog.

Can vaccines cause the actual diseases that are being vaccinated against?

In the past this used to be rarely seen but not anymore. Older vaccines used to involve use of only slightly weakened viruses that could potentially lead to disease. However the inactivated or modified viruses used today are carefully engineered so that they cannot reproduce effectively and therefore cannot cause full disease.

What sort of adverse reactions can be seen with vaccines and what causes them?

Fortunately ill-effects are fairly rare and seen in less than 5% of animals vaccinated. The main symptoms are lethargy, inappetence and a mild fever which lasts for 1-3 days. Un upset stomach may be observed in some cases.

A vaccine reaction can be caused by one of two things:

  • An excessive immune response to the modified/inactivated virus or bacteria
  • An adverse or allergic reaction to the adjuvant used to stimulate an immune response

Opinion (and science) is divided over what causes most ill-effects though sudden adverse reactions are more likely cause by an allergic reaction to the adjuvant whereas a fever a few days later is more likely due to the response of the immune system to the virus or bacteria.

In recent well publicised cases where an animal has developed a serious and life-threatening disease such as heart failure, liver disease, diabetes etc following vaccination, the most likely reason is that the animal was already sitting on a knife-edge (often without any prior symptoms) and that the mild illness or fever caused by the vaccine was enough to tip them over the edge.

Are vaccine adjuvants a concern?

There is a lot of debate surrounding vaccine adjuvants and whether they have any long term ill-effects. There are numerous stories about individual cases where dogs have seemingly reacted quite badly to a vaccine adjuvant and it is fair to surmise that some dogs are very sensitive to certain compounds.

However these are rare, isolated cases and there is no convincing evidence to suggest that these adjuvants pose any risk in the short, medium or long term for the vast majority of dogs.

I am very worried about my animals having insufficient protection – is over-vaccinating harmful?

In Europe it is still common practice to administer ALL of the vaccines every year and the vast majority of data suggests that this is perfectly safe — just unnecessary for most animals. Obviously if an animal is sensitive or allergic to the adjuvant used in the vaccine then this continual administration of the compound may provoke a progressively worse allergic reaction.

What is the current furore over the new Lepto ‘L4’ vaccine all about?

Leptospirosis vaccines have been available for over five decades. All of them targeted the two most common forms of the bacterium. However in recent years, across the UK, Europe and the USA, new varieties of leptospirosis have emerged and in many cases are even more prevalent than the original strains. This practice strongly believes in providing your pet with the best protection possible and this is why we will be using the latest four strain lepto vaccine as part of our standard vaccination protocol.

Since its launch in 2013, the L4 vaccine has been widely adopted in the UK and has become one of the most commonly used dog vaccines with several million doses being administered.  Initially there were concerns about adverse reactions to the new L4 vaccine so we decided to monitor the situation before deciding whether to introduce it into our vaccination regimes.  However after several years since it’s introduction we are now convinced that the vaccine is safe and with increasing cases of the newer strains of leptospirosis locally we feel that it is in the best interest of our patients that they receive the newer L4 vaccine rather than the older L2 vaccine.  Similar to the process for human medicines, the safety of Nobivac L4 has been established through comprehensive clinical research studies. Multiple regulatory agencies have reviewed the Nobivac L4 clinical research data and deemed the vaccine safe for use.

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In summary..

Routine vaccinations are perfectly safe for the vast majority of dogs but there is no need to have them all every year. If you have had a bad experience with vaccination in the past or have a dog that is known to be sensitive then it may be worth considering titre-testing before doing the full DHP vaccination every 3 or 4 years. Likewise if you have had a bad experience with one of the diseases e.g. parvovirus then you may want to check your dog has adequate protection 6-8 weeks after the primary course and possibly annually thereafter as a belt and braces measure.

As vets we generally just vaccinate our own dogs according to the minimal vaccination protocol i.e. DHP every 3 to 4 years with a Lepto in between and for most dogs we feel that this is the best compromise between vaccination efficacy and safety

Please do not hesitate to contact the surgery by phone or email hellopoole@natteri or hellobournemouth@natteri if you have any further queries!

Team Natterjacks!

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