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Puppy Vaccinations—The Rest of the Story

by | Dog Breeding, Dog Health

Last week, I heard that yet another young dog was diagnosed with parvovirus even though she had received a “complete” puppy series of vaccinations. How is this possible? How can you be sure that your young dogs are not at risk for parvo or distemper?

In reality, many young dogs are still be at risk for parvo (and even distemper) after completing their puppy vaccination series. However, today we have two simple and relatively inexpensive tools that enable us to be sure the vaccinations we gave worked so our dogs are protected.

The most common reason that parvo and distemper vaccines don’t work is the pup’s maternal antibodies, the protection it received from its mom’s milk right after birth. While maternal antibodies are still high in a pup, they neutralize the distemper-parvo vaccines. Not until its maternal immunity drops can a pup develop its own immunity that will protect it from the virus long term. How long maternal antibodies remain high varies by the litter and can range from 1 to 17 weeks or even longer.

In the past, it’s been difficult to measure either or both a dog mom’s and a pup’s vaccine antibodies so veterinarians, breeders, and owners needed to give pups a series of shots. Because we didn’t know when mom’s immunity would drop low enough to allow the pup to respond to a vaccination, these shots were given every 3-4 weeks, starting as early as 6 weeks.

Since we didn’t have an easy and inexpensive way to check the pup’s individual immunity, we guessed on when we needed to stop vaccinating. In some countries, it was common to complete the series at 12 weeks, while elsewhere the series continued until 15 or 16 weeks. Most professional guidelines recommend vaccinating until 16 weeks based on research showing that a large majority of pups, but not 100%, will respond to a vaccine at that age. As a result of this plan, a pup might receive 3 or 4 vaccinations during this time in hopes that one of them resulting in the pup developing immunity to the disease.

I’m sure you can see the problem. If a pup’s maternal immunity was so high that it couldn’t respond to a parvo vaccine until 17 weeks but it received its last shot at 12 or 15 weeks, then it was as if it had never been vaccinated at all. It had NO protection against the virus—NONE!—until it received another shot. That usually happened when the pup was a year old and went back in for its last distemper-parvo vaccination.

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That means that the pup was pretty much unprotected for its entire first year of life. If it came in contact with the virus at the dog park, training class or dog show, the pup would come down with parvo, despite being “fully vaccinated.”

Luckily, today, we have two tools that can enable us to protect our puppies and young dogs from parvovirus, distemper (and adenovirus):

1) Vaccine antibody titers, usually just called titers. Titers measure the antibodies to a virus circulating in the puppy’s or dog’s blood. There are qualitative titers, that basically give a “yes/no” answer to the question “Is the dog protected?” However, in the case of puppies and dams, we need to use quantitative titers that are usually presented as a ratio, such as 1:256 (said, “one to two hundred fifty-six). Sometimes these are shortened to just the second number, 256.

We can and should use a follow-up titer for ALL puppies two weeks after their last distemper-parvo vaccination to confirm that they indeed responded to the vaccine and have developed immunity to the two viruses. If the titer is zero, the pup should be immediately revaccinated because it is not protected.

If every puppy was titered at the end of its puppy series, we would not have young dogs coming down with parvo (or distemper)!!! Vaccination doesn’t equal immunity unless and until titering confirms the pup responded!

2) Maternal vaccine nomographs, usually called nomographs, are an estimate of the amount of maternal antibodies passed to pups from their mother via her first milk or colostrum. This estimate is based on the mom’s individual vaccine antibody titer, which is then plotted by a lab. This plot indicates when the pups that received her colostrum are most likely not protectable by vaccination and when they will be able to respond to a vaccine.

Although nomographs are estimates, they give breeders and thus new owners an idea of whether a pup is likely to be able to respond to an early vaccination or if it will not be able to respond until much later.

Recent research shows that nomographs increase the number of pups protected from distemper and parvo, and decrease the age at which that happens. See data below.

I’ve bred bitches with low individual titers. As a result, every one of her pups responded to a 7-week vaccination and needed no further shots. I’ve also bred bitches with extremely high titers whose pups could not respond to the vaccine until 17 weeks of age. Because I knew the bitch’s titers, I was able to tailor each pup’s socialization program and vaccination protocol based on when it could best respond to a vaccine. Only one of these pups came down with parvo and that was because an owner stopped vaccinating too early.

The CAVIDS Lab at the University of Wisconsin Vet School offers quantitative vaccine titers and nomographs for around $40! It’s some of the best money you will spend to keep your pups and young dogs safe.

There is lots more to vaccinating puppies but if every puppy was titered two weeks after its last puppy shot, we would have far fewer young dogs that are coming down with parvo or distemper. If breeders used vaccine nomographs for each litter, they would be able to tailor vaccine protocols to each litter to help owners keep their pups as safe as possible.


  • Nomograph pups age at protection: 15.9 weeks*
  • Non-nomograph puppies age at protection: 21.3 weeks**
  • % nomograph pups protected: 95.6%*
  • % non-nomograph pups protected:85.5%**


  • Nomograph pups age at protection: 15.9 weeks*
  • Non-nomograph puppies age at protection: 22.5 weeks**
  • % nomograph pups protected: 90.5%*
  • % non-nomograph pups protected:81.7%**
  • * same as sample of 5,000 adult dogs from the population

    ** significantly different than both nomograph pups and sample of 5,000 adult dogs from the population


    “Canine nomograph evaluation improves puppy immunization,” 2020, Larson L, B Thiel, V Santana and R Schultz, Companion Animal Vaccine and Immuno Diagnostics Service Laboratory, University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, presented at the 2020 Society for Theriogenology conference.


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