Taking your dog to the vet for its annual jabs has become commonplace, says David Tomlinson. But is it necessary? A new test might have the answer…
Gundog vaccinations are essential, but are annual boosters necessary? David Tomlinson considers what the titre test could teach us.
For more on looking after your gundog’s health, bloat is uncommon but can be fatal – read bloat in dogs – and the need to act quickly to learn the symptoms.
If you exclude hereditary complaints (admittedly a rather big if), Britain’s dogs have never been healthier. Advances in veterinary science and improved animal husbandry have virtually eliminated the diseases that once caused so many problems for all canines, from gundogs to lapdogs. Few dog owners today have even heard of canine distemper or hard pad, let alone considered that their animals might be vulnerable to tapeworms or suffer from rickets. For this happy state of affairs we have the pharmaceutical industry to thank for effective vaccinations.
Puppies, like children, are far more susceptible to diseases than adult dogs that have a degree of natural immunity, so for many years it has been standard practice to give puppies a course of what are known as core vaccinations to cover the major infectious diseases of canine hepatitis, canine parvovirus and canine distemper. All three were former killers. A year after the date of the vaccination the usual recommendation is that the dog should be inoculated again.
After this vaccination it used to be standard practice for the dog to visit the vet once a year to receive a booster. Many vets still recommend this – it is, after all, a steady earner for both the practice and the pharmaceutical industry – but the general advice today is that this is over-vaccination. It has been found that the initial immunisation lasts far longer than was once thought, so there’s no clinical need for annual boosters. The recommendation of the World Small Animal Veterinary Association is that core vaccinations should be given “no more often than every three years”. Many veterinary experts argue that there is no science behind even a three-year cycle, and that the core vaccinations administered in the dog’s first 14 months will last it for life. I remember having vaccinations as a child for a variety of diseases, but don’t recall being summoned back for boosters.
Back in the days when my dogs did have annual booster jabs, one of my adult spaniels suffered an adverse reaction within hours of visiting the vet for her booster. She was a fit and healthy dog so soon recovered, but it was a subtle warning that problems can arise and over-vaccination can be as risky as not vaccinating at all. While vaccination will protect your dog against most infectious diseases, it will also increase your dog’s risk of cancer and other serious auto-immune diseases. A balance has to be struck but there is help available if you remain undecided. It’s called the titre test.
You may never have heard of a titre test – I hadn’t until recently. It is a blood test that measures the level of antibodies in the immune system. When a dog is vaccinated the immune system responds by producing antibodies that will be able to resist future infections. The titre test simply measures how many antibodies remain in the dog’s blood and whether further vaccination is really necessary. Think of it as a sophisticated version of the dip-stick in your car’s engine. The latter indicates whether you need to top up the oil: with most modern engines you rarely need to.
An increasing number of veterinary practices in the UK now offer titre testing but there are still many that don’t, leading to the suspicion that annual vaccinations are more profitable than blood testing. The cost of the latter is not dissimilar to the price of booster vaccinations, but the chief expense is sending the blood sample to the laboratory where the test takes place. The laboratory also takes a fee, reducing the profit for your vet. It’s worth remembering, too, that titre testing can’t be relied on completely to make sure your dog is protected but it does offer a valuable indication.
There are few more controversial subjects in the dog world than the need, or not, to revaccinate dogs on an annual basis. Turn to the internet and you are likely to end up more confused that you did before. Websites with links to the pharmaceutical industry invariably insist on annual vaccination, while others, such as the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA), suggest once every three years. Others state that there’s little need to revaccinate a dog as long as it had the full course of puppy injections. Most of us like to rely on our vet for advice on subjects such as this but it’s worth bearing in mind that your vet has a financial interest, so his or her advice may not be unbiased.
However, what nearly everyone agrees on is that vaccinating puppies is essential, but according to the PDSA, some 25% of the UK’s dogs no longer receive a primary course of vaccinations as puppies, a rise from 20% in 2011. No one knows whether this is because of complacency or the so-called anti-vax movement. Many parents now opt not to have their children vaccinated: are the same people not vaccinating their dogs for the same reasons?
Whatever the explanation, this is a worrying trend and could lead to an increasing number of outbreaks of diseases that we once feared so much. There is no escaping the fact that vaccination is essential for the health of our dogs but it is a tool that should be considered carefully whenever we use it.