Cat Vaccinations 101 (From an Expert)

Updated September 22, 2021
 Cat Vaccination

Cat vaccinations are an important health consideration for every cat owner, and knowing which vaccines your feline friend needs will ensure they remain protected. These expert tips will help you make informed decisions about your cat's health.

Required Vaccinations for Cats

"Many different vaccines are available for cats," said Dr. Ann E. Hohenhaus, DVM, DACVIM of The Animal Medical Center in New York City. There are, however, vaccinations that are considered "core," or necessary for cats. These immunizations are highly recommended for all cats regardless of age or lifestyle due to the prevalence of the viruses they protect against, transmissibility, and the gravity of the disease.

Rabies Vaccine

"Rabies vaccine is a core vaccine," Dr. Hohenhaus said, and is "Legally mandated because rabies is uniformly fatal in people and animals. The vaccine, however, is safe and highly effective." Specific rules surrounding the rabies vaccine for pets depend on the area of your residence. Dr. Hohenhaus confirmed this, reporting "Each municipality sets its own regulations regarding rabies vaccinations, since the disease is a public health concern." You can look up requirements for your area or call your veterinarian.

FVRCP Combination Vaccine

Additional core vaccines, as released by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Vaccine Advisory Panel, protect against the following viruses.

  • Feline viral rhinotracheitis, as Dr. Hohenhaus described it, "the cat version of a bad cold caused by a herpes virus."
  • Calicivirus, "Another upper respiratory virus, which can cause severe oral and ocular ulcers," she stated.
  • Panleukopenia, "A wicked diarrhea disease," Dr. Hohenhaus added. "In 20 years of being a vet, I can't recall a cat ever recovering from panleukopenia, yet it is very preventable with adequate vaccination."

That might appear to be a lot of injections for your tiny cat to receive, but they don't necessarily need separate shots for each. Fortunately, cats can be protected from these three viruses through a single vaccination -- the FVRCP combination vaccine.

Elective Feline Vaccines

For outdoor cats or those with exposure to additional viruses, there are other available vaccines. "A veterinarian may recommend other feline vaccinations called 'non-core,' based on conditions in your geographic area and your cat's lifestyle," Dr. Hohenhaus said.

The most common and readily available lifestyle vaccination is the feline leukemia (FeLV) vaccine. Feline leukemia virus is a resilient disease spread through contact with the blood, saliva, or other bodily fluids of an infected cat. This virus is the second leading cause of death in cats, next only to trauma. Felines who interact with other cats of unknown status outside or in indoor settings should be protected against FeLV. Other lifestyle vaccines are available, but not as commonly recommended, including feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), feline Bordetella, and feline chlamydia vaccines.

How can you determine whether your cat needs non-core vaccines? "Every cat should have an assessment made of its risk for developing diseases that can be prevented by vaccination, as well as its risk of a vaccine reaction," said Dr. Hohenhaus said. "The owner and the veterinarian can then make a decision about what diseases should be included in a vaccine protocol for that individual cat."

The Vaccination Process

Whether you have an appointment at the veterinary hospital or you're attending a shot clinic elsewhere, the procedure will be relatively the same.

  • The vet or nurse seeing your cat will obtain a medical history and inquire about the overall health of your feline friend. If your cat is currently or has recently experienced any illness, such as vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy, or wounds, they will likely recommend returning at a later date after your cat has recovered.
  • They will take a rectal temperature to ensure your cat doesn't have a fever.
  • The staff will draw up the small volume of liquid from a vial into a syringe.
  • You may be given the option to comfort your cat when they receive the vaccine, or the assistant with hold them to ensure everyone's safety.
  • The location of the vaccine may vary based on which vaccine is being given. The AAFP has location recommendations for feline vaccines that many veterinarians follow; therefore, you may notice the doctor or nurse injecting the liquid into a limb or even your cat's tail.
  • Your cat will feel a slight prick as the vaccine is injected under the skin and they might fidget due to the sensation.
  • Be sure to give your cat a large amount of affection and praise during and after they receive the shot.
veterinarian holding a little cat

What to Expect After a Vaccination

If this is the first time your cat is receiving a vaccine, or the first time they're getting one while in your care, it can be helpful to know what to expect following the vaccination.

  • It's not unusual for your cat to be slightly tired for the rest of the day following their vaccine.
  • You might notice a small bubble under the skin in the injection area. This is most likely the vaccine liquid and should go down in a day or so. If it does not resolve after a week or two, return to your vet to have them take a look.
  • Your cat may be slightly tender in the area where the immunization was administered. Don't be alarmed if they cry out when you hold them or touch that area even a few days after. If your cat will allow, you can use a cold compress on the area to reduce inflammation and discomfort.

Addressing Vaccine Reactions

Although rare, vaccine reactions can occur and typically happen within the first few hours post-shot. See your vet immediately if your cat exhibits any of these signs following a vaccine.

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Facial swelling
  • Sudden vomiting or diarrhea
  • Pale gums
  • Collapse
  • Hives

For those cats who have known reactions to vaccines, precautions should be taken for future boosters, although this depends on the severity of the reaction. Dr. Hohenhaus explained, "If it is mild, antihistamines administered before vaccination may be enough to prevent a reaction."

"An assessment must always be made regarding any medical intervention as to whether or not the risk of the treatment outweighs the benefit," she added. "In some rare cases, vaccination may not benefit a cat at all." Be sure to let your vet know if your cat has experienced a reaction in the past, so together you can develop a plan together.

Frequency of Cat Vaccinations: Are Annual Boosters Necessary?

The prospect of overvaccination is a real concern for many cat owners; therefore, you may wonder if yearly boosters are truly necessary for a healthy cat in the prime of life. The answer is not necessarily, but it depends on the type of vaccine administered and the patient's immunity. Cat owners must first understand that a series of shots during kittenhood is necessary for young cats to build immunity due to their maternal antibodies.

"Antibodies, the key to providing immunity against infections, are made by immune system cells, and block the ability of viruses to cause an infection," Dr. Hoehnhaus said, "For a brief period after birth, kittens get their mother's antibodies from nursing. Those antibodies do not allow the kitten to make antibodies of its own."

"At some point -- between 1 to 4 months of age -- those antibodies wear off, and the kitten is susceptible to infection," she added. "The problem is, we don't know exactly when the antibodies from the mother will wear off, so we administer feline vaccinations multiple times to ensure the kitten is vaccinated at a time when it can make antibodies of its own."

"The first time a vaccine is given, the immune system responds over the next 10 to 14 days to begin making antibodies," Dr. Hoehnhaus said. "When a booster dose of vaccine is administered, the body has a stronger and more rapid immune response because of special memory cells that remember the virus from the previous vaccination. It makes a more vigorous immune response, giving added protection against infection."

For this reason, Dr. Hohenhaus confirms that kittens should receive the FVRCP combination vaccine "Every three to four weeks until they are 16 weeks of age." After this initial kitten series, a cat should receive a single vaccine one year later, then a booster every three years thereafter. Rabies vaccines should be "Given in compliance with local laws," Dr. Hohenhaus said, or may be based on the manufacturer's guidelines.

Vaccines for Older Cats

Age does not absolve cats from needing vaccinations. If an older cat, or a cat of any age, is acutely sick and showing symptoms, the veterinarian will likely advise against vaccinating until they are well. However, the same is not always true for chronic ailments, as older cats with these conditions might be at higher risk of contracting harmful viruses.

Dr. Hohenhaus stated that "Some cats with chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, and kidney failure, may need vaccinations to ward off a preventable disease while the cat is battling a chronic incurable disorder. In cats with a chronic disease, an acute upper respiratory disease may decompensate their chronic disease from which the cat cannot recover."

Expert Tips on Cat Vaccines

Although feline vaccine recommendations and guidelines are in place, a cat's vaccination schedule should be tailored to the individual. Dr. Hohenhaus explained, "All medical and surgical interventions, including vaccinations, should involve a conversation between the cat owner and the veterinarian about the cat's lifestyle, the owner's preferences, and the veterinarian's recommendations to make sure informed decisions are made."

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