Reviewed and updated for accuracy on May 24, 2019, by Dr. Katie Grzyb, DVM
When it comes to medicine, there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. And preventive care recommendations for our cats are no exception.
Cat vaccination recommendations are among the most contentious debates in veterinary medicine. It’s easy to be overwhelmed when you hear conflicting information about whether your cat needs them and the adverse effects they may have.
Even though it’s a confusing topic, making sure your cat has the shots they need and keeping up with booster shots is very important.
Here’s an explanation of each required cat vaccination (core) and those that are sometimes recommended by your vet (lifestyle/noncore).
What Vaccines Do Cats Need?
The Feline Vaccination Advisory Panel regularly evaluates and researches cat vaccination developments to make science-based recommendations.
The panel is comprised of dedcated feline veterinarians and scientists and is regarded as a reputable source of cat vaccination standards.
Their guidelines, published by the American Association of Feline Practitioners, are among the most trusted and utilized recommendations in the field.
They divide cat vaccines into two categories:
- Core vaccines
- Noncore vaccines
after initial series
Bordetella (can be administered
as early as 8 weeks)
* FeLV: highly recommended for kittens and optional for adult cats.
** Rabies: 3-year vs 1-year vaccine depending on state laws.
Core Vaccines for Cats
Core vaccines are those recommended for all cats, no matter where they live or under what conditions.
The four core vaccines for cats are:
- Feline Rhinotracheitis Virus/Herpesvirus 1 (FVR/FHV-1)
- Feline Calicivirus (FCV)
- Feline Panleukopenia (FPV)
These diseases are highly infectious and found worldwide. They are highly dangerous to young cats, and the vaccines are considered highly protective with minimal risk. This is why all cats should receive these core vaccines.
Rabies is significant not only for its effect on the cat but because it is a disease that is transmissible and fatal to humans.
While cats are not natural carriers for the disease, they can be infected by a bite from any infected mammal and then pass it on to others. After an incubation stage averaging two months, clinical signs of aggression, disorientation and death rapidly progress.
Rabies is endemic worldwide, and the vaccine is recommended for all pet cats.
While the rabies vaccine is not listed as a core vaccine by the AAFP guidelines, it is required by law in most regions. Rabies is a zoonotic disease (it can be transmitted from animals to humans), so it is a public safety issue to keep your cat up to date on their rabies vaccine.
FVRCP Vaccine for Cats
The other three core vaccines are combined into a single three-in-one vaccine called the FVRCP vaccine. This allows veterinarians to efficiently administer the vaccines all at once, instead of having to inject a cat three separate times in one visit.
Feline panleukopenia, also known as feline parvovirus, is a highly infectious disease with a high mortality rate in kittens.
While the disease usually starts with decreased energy and low appetite, it progresses to vomiting and diarrhea. The virus also kills off the white blood cells, leaving the young cats even more susceptible to secondary infections.
Feline herpesvirus, also known as feline rhinotracheitis virus, causes severe signs of upper respiratory infection.
After the cat recovers from the initial infection, the virus enters a latency period in the nerves. During times of stress, the virus can reactivate, and the cat can start to show signs of infection again—even if they have not been reexposed to the disease.
Feline calicivirus encompasses a number of viral strains that cause signs of upper respiratory infection, such as sneezing and nasal discharge as well as oral ulcerations.
FCV is thought to be associated with chronic gingivitis/stomatitis, a very painful inflammation of the gums and teeth. Some of the more virulent strains cause hair loss and crusting on other parts of the body as well as hepatitis and even death.
Frequency of Core Vaccinations
Kittens under 6 months of age are most susceptible to infectious diseases, so they are considered a primary focus of vaccination recommendations.
Maternal antibodies passed on from the mother are meant to confer some degree of protection against diseases, but they also interfere with, or even inactivate, the body’s response to vaccination.
For this reason, initial core kitten vaccinations occur at three- to four-week intervals until the cat is 16-20 weeks old and maternal antibodies are out of the system.
For any cat over 16 weeks old whose vaccine history is unknown, the initial series consists of two doses given three to four weeks apart.
Core vaccines should be boosted one year after the initial series.
The scientific community is still learning exactly how long these vaccines last. Currently, the recommendation for indoor/outdoor cats is to administer the FVRCP vaccine annually.
For indoor-only cats, the recommendation is to administer the vaccine every three years. Cats heading into stressful situations, such as boarding, may benefit from a core vaccine booster 7-10 days before.
Noncore Vaccines for Cats
Vaccines that are appropriate for some cats in some circumstances are considered noncore vaccines (or lifestyle vaccines).
The noncore vaccines include:
The FeLV vaccine works to protect your cat against feline leukemia virus. While it is listed as a noncore vaccine, it is a little more complicated than that.
FeLV is found worldwide. Transmitted through body fluids including saliva, urine and feces, FeLV is spread when an infected cat comes into close contact with another cat that they groom or share bowls with.
Infection with FeLV is not an automatic death sentence. Many cats are fortunate to go into a regressive state and appear perfectly healthy throughout their lives, but some do not.
After a latent period lasting months or even years, the disease progresses to a variety of associated conditions: lymphoma, anemia or immunosuppressionresulting in secondary disease.
The FeLV vaccine is recommended as core for kittens. The initial vaccination series consists of two doses three to four weeks apart, followed by revaccination one year later for all pet cats.
However, based on most recent data, the Vaccine Advisory Panel recommends that subsequent vaccines may be administered based on risk: yearly for high-risk cats and every two years for lower risk cats.
Your veterinarian can assess your cat’s risk of FeLV infection and decide on an appropriate vaccination schedule.
What About Adverse Events?
No injection or medication is without some degree of risk, but we continue to vaccinate because, in most cases, it is much smaller than the risk of the disease itself.
The overall incidence of adverse reactions in cats is reported to be about half of 1 percent and usually mild and self-limiting. Common side effects include lethargy, transient fever and local inflammation.
Anaphylaxis and death are, fortunately, extremely rare: about one in every 10,000 vaccines.
A vaccine-associated sarcoma is a slow-growing but locally aggressive cancerous mass that develops at vaccine injection sites. Sarcomas occur with about the same rare frequency as anaphylactic reactions.
For cats without a history of vaccine reactions, the risk of sarcomas is usually outweighed by the benefit of the core vaccines.
Pet owners can minimize the impact of sarcomas by monitoring injection sites for swelling after vaccinations. Swellings should be biopsied if they are larger than 2 centimeters, persist longer than three months, or grow one month past the date of vaccination. When sarcomas are addressed early, surgery is often curative.
Your Veterinarian Can Determine Your Cat’s Vaccination Schedule
Many factors affect the likelihood of a cat developing an infectious disease, which is why a thorough medical history is essential to determining each cat’s recommended care.
The factors that your veterinarian will consider to determine your cat’s vaccination schedule include:
- Medical history
- Vaccination history
- How likely they are to be exposed to a pathogen
- Severity of disease caused by a pathogen
If the benefit to the cat is greater than the likelihood of a bad reaction, the cat should be vaccinated.
With these recommendations as a starting point, you can discuss your cat’s lifestyle and risk factors with your veterinarian to determine an optimal, individualized vaccination protocol.
Featured Image: iStock.com/MightyPics
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