Vaccines for Cats: The Ins and Outs of Vaccinating Your Pet

(Photo by Nirzar Pangarkar on Unsplash)

A Note From Dr. JR:

Since their discovery, vaccinations have done wonders to lessen the frequency and severity of many diseases.  Some diseases (like Small Pox) have even been eradicated through stringent vaccination protocols. Vaccinations work by gradually stimulating the body’s immune system with repeated, controlled doses of particles that resemble natural exposure to a specific disease.  The immune system develops memory to the disease, allowing it to prepare for the real-deal disease if exposure should occur down the road.

What Vaccines Should My Cat Receive?
Vaccines are classified as “core” and “non-core.”  Core vaccines are those that are recommended for all cats, regardless of your geographic location, your cat’s lifestyle, etc.  Non-core vaccines are optional vaccines based on the exposure risk for your specific pet.

Core Vaccines
In their most recent publication for vaccine recommendations, the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) designated three vaccinations as core:

  1. Feline panleukopenia. This is the feline equivalent of parvovirus in dogs.  This disease causes gastrointestinal upset in the form of vomiting, diarrhea, and loss of appetite, and it can often be fatal.
  2. Feline herpes virus.  This virus causes upper respiratory illness with the most common clinical signs including fever, sneezing, conjunctivitis, and corneal ulcers. 
  3. Feline calicivirus. This virus causes respiratory illness, as well as oral disease.  It most commonly causes oral ulcers which lead to loss of appetite, drooling, and pain. 

Non-Core Vaccines
Non-core vaccinations include rabies, feline leukemia virus, feline Chlamydia, and feline Bordetella.  Though rabies vaccination is not listed as a core vaccine, it is required by law for all cats unless a medical exemption is granted.  The frequency of vaccination varies from state to state, so be sure to check your state’s requirements.
The pros and cons of all other non-core vaccinations should be discussed with your veterinarian.  Evaluating your cat’s lifestyle, exposure risk, and systemic health will help determine the necessity and frequency of non-core vaccinations.

How Effective are Most Vaccinations?
Efficacy rates vary depending on certain intrinsic factors (factors associated with your cat) and certain extrinsic factors (the type of vaccine, vaccine manufacturer, natural viral mutation rates, etc.).  For instance, the panleukopenia and feline leukemia vaccines are highly effective at preventing disease.  Other vaccines, such as the herpes virus vaccine are less effective at preventing the disease, but work to lessen the clinical signs once exposure and infection occur.

What are the Risks Associated with Vaccinations?
Common adverse reactions associated with vaccinations are transient fever, irritation at the vaccine site, and lethargy.  While uncommon, vomiting, diarrhea, and facial swelling may also occur.  If any of these side effects are noted following vaccination of your pet, contact your veterinarian.  You will want to be sure to discuss any adverse reactions prior to vaccinating in the future.
More serious side effects can occur, however, they are extremely rare. Historically, veterinarians have recommended annual vaccinations for cats.  This general recommendation has come under scrutiny in recent years due to the risk of injection-site sarcomas (ISS).  ISS is a type of cancer that is associated with vaccinations in cats.  It occurs as a result of a cat’s immune system over-reacting to stimulation from a vaccine.  Again, these cancers are extremely rare, with rates ranging from 1 in 4,000 to 1 in 30,000.

The Take Home Message
Vaccinations work!  They can save your cat’s life by preventing potentially fatal diseases, and they can save your wallet by preventing expensive treatment that is used once infection sets in.  Vaccination protocols vary from pet to pet, so talk with your veterinarian to determine what plan makes the most sense for your cat.

Our information is not intended to replace the advice of your veterinarian.  Do not use this information for diagnostic purposes. Always take your pet to your veterinarian to obtain a diagnosis and course of treatment.