More than a decade ago when a dog named Sophia came to my life, I was too ignorant on the matter of vaccination to comprehend that the repeated annual “booster” was not only unnecessary and way overdone but might have inflicted danger to my best friend as well.
A few years later, a patient of mine came to my office with her new puppy. She was the first to enlighten me on the issue of over-vaccination.
Around that time, as luck would have it, I then had the good fortune of getting to know a constitutionally “defective” but emotionally healthy 8-week old pup who couldn’t sustain the “attack” of all those repeated vaccinations. A wonderful progressive local vet gave my young pup one set of vaccines at the age of 16 weeks, repeated it once when she was about a year old and then “quit”. I loved him for it.
The pup lived for about four years – precisely 10-days after her last heroic hike all the way to the top of Whiteface Mountain, and then a sideway detour to Ester Mountain, kidney failure finally took her.
I was determined to strike the “right” balance between prevention and risk in terms of vaccination when I encountered my next pup.
After some reading, I gave her a single dose of NeoPar (for CPV) when she was 14 weeks old and then a dose of NeoVac DA2 (for CDV and CAV) at 16 weeks. Besides fulfilling the legal requirement of rabies vaccinations, that was all the vaccination she has ever been given.
Although prone to panic attacks and a general aversion to humans, my now 4 1/2-year-old has never been physically sick a single day in her life. Perhaps it has to do with her sound genetics and strong constitution. Or, perhaps, thanks due, in no small part, to her everyday diet of farm fresh organic chicken, eggs, turkey, liver, fish, beef and mountains of veggies, berries and any other fruits that are in season.
On her mountain hikes and open water swimming adventures, she has encountered plenty of wildlife and, I am certain, possibly all sorts of nasty viruses.
Still, I began to wonder if she ever had “true protection” against CPV, CDV and CAV (parvo, distemper and adenovirus that “produces” canine hepatitis).
I asked her vet if he’d get VacciCheck for my young friend, so she may be checked to find out if she’s vulnerable for such serious “threats”.
“There seems to be no golden standard for those tests,” the good doctor informed me.
Though trusted implicitly for his kindness, his clinical judgment and his medical knowledge; true to my nature of being the “doubting Thomas” therefore unwilling to take his word for it, I went on reading/watching all the literature/lectures I could find in the area of canine immunology.
Here is what I discovered –
Question 1. Are there “gold standard” antibody titer tests that can tell us if a dog is protected against a particular virus?
According to Dr. Ronald Schultz, there are. They are called NI (virus neutralization inhibition tests for CPV, CDV and CAV) and HI (hemoglobinization inhibition test for CPV). The tests use a series of dilutions and then “read” the most diluted sample that antibody can still be detected. Hence the name “titer” test.
Question 2. What makes the “gold standard” the “golden”?
The answer is that those tests have been validated by passing a “challenge test”.
“Challenge” means that the animal is infected with the pathogens being tested.
So if a dog has the “desired” amount of antibody detected by the “gold standard” test for a given pathogen, and is then infected with the disease but does not get sick with the illness. Then the dog is determined to have “passed” the “challenge test”.
Question 3. How correlated is the in-clinic tests such as VacciCheck to the “gold standard” antibody titer tests?
First, there is a difference between in-house tests and “gold standard” tests. VacciCheck or TiterCheck do not use a series of dilutions to “read” the “titer”. Instead, they rely on the antibodies’ ability to bind to antigens in a given blood, serum, or plasma sample.
These tests do not produce a titer; however, they are rather highly correlated to the “gold standard” tests.**
Question 4. How often does one need to run VacciCheck?
According to Dr. Schultz, if an adult dog has any antibody at all against a certain virus, then it means that he/she is able to mobilize his/her immune response and fend off the disease. The interesting thing is that even if the antibody becomes undetectable over the years, if the said dog has ever had a positive titer test in his/her lifetime, he/she is likely to be protected.
Question 5. What if my dog tests negative?
If you believe VacciCheck is not “sensitive enough” to have a positive reading, you may still send the sample to Dr. Schultz’s lab for a “real” “gold standard” test as your dog may still be “protected” if he/she has any antibody at all*.
Question 6. What if my dog turns out to be a low- or non-responder even after the “gold standard” tests and re-vaccination?
Then no number of repeated vaccination is going to help*.
In case one needs to know: A non-responder is a genetic condition. The said dogs who have such a condition may not live through an encounter with a particular virus. According to Dr. Schultz, in canine population 1 in 1000 is a non-responder for CPV, and 1 in 5000 for CDV and since they haven’t found any non-responders for CAV (the culprit of Canine hepatitis) so he assumed that it would possibly be 1 in 100,000.
A low-responder, however, may have “hope”. He/she may yet “face” the disease and hopefully his/her immune system might just be “strong enough” to fend off the disease. One can only hope.
Question 7. What about the cost?
My vet’s concern is also of cost. The minimum order of one VacciCheck testing kit, he was told, is one test comb, which should test 12 samples. If nobody else requires VacciCheck, he’d be left with 11 unused “slots”. I can only hope that other people would want to provide their best friends with such tests so I have no answer to the question.
The test for each sample costs $20, I was told.
Hopefully one day soon, my 4 1/2-year-old would get VacciCheck-ed. 🙂
In any event, going way beyond the concern about my own dog, just imagine if the “gate keeper” of an animal shelter runs VacciCheck before vaccinating every new “resident”, how many dogs/cats would be spared from unnecessary vaccination?
Further more, their new adopters may never have any need to vaccinate their new charges.
As for the shelters, they may also be able to place the “protected” animals right in the middle of an outbreak without much worry. Just like in the face of a small pox outbreak, those humans who had survived the disease therefore obtained immunity could work right among the sick without the slightest worry of their own “demise”. 🙂
P.S. Some readers seemed to be concerned about the legality of whether “skipping” frequent (annual or once every 3-year) “booster” vaccinations for CPV, CDV and CAV. In the US, there is only laws for rabies vaccination depending on the state, most require 3-year “boosters” (after the initial 1-year) and a few states still require annual or 2-year “boosters”.
There is no legal requirement for other vaccines.
Interestingly, for vets or other humans who have frequent contact with domestic animals or wildlife, only a single preventive rabies vaccine is given, with the idea that a series of post exposure vaccines can be given after the “biting incident”. 🙂 This makes me wonder why we couldn’t treat dogs the same way in terms of rabies vaccination….