Veterinarian giving vaccination injection to a cat.

If this is your first time owning a cat, you’ve likely turned to the internet for answers about how to care for your new and precious pet. At Main Street Veterinary Hospital, we work extremely hard to get you the accurate information you need. Unfortunately, many well-meaning pet parents share material that isn’t factually accurate or what your veterinarian would want you to do or know. That’s why we’ve answered the most frequently asked questions about cat vaccinations thoroughly and accurately so that you can get your cat on the path to optimal wellness.

If you’re looking for a highly trained veterinarian in Norman, OK, we’d love to help you care for your cat and any other pets. The first order of business is to get your cat seen to ensure they have no undisclosed illnesses, so please call us right away at (405) 329-6555.

What exactly are cat vaccinations?

Like any vaccination, a cat vaccination is an injection of a modified version of a pathogen – usually a virus or bacteria – that stimulates an immune response. Hence, the body recognizes the pathogen and fights it off when encountered. You want your cat’s body to produce antibodies against that substance if they are exposed to it, so they have some immunity to fight it off more effectively.

Are vaccinations for my cat necessary?

We highly recommend vaccinations to prevent fatal and zoonotic diseases in cats. Rabies, for example, can be fatal if contracted and unvaccinated to your cat. Other infections may not be zoonotic – transmissible to humans – but can still be dangerous or fatal. Feline leukemia virus is one such example, which is unfortunately common and can be a devastating illness. It’s essential to vaccinate your cat since there is no way to predict what they will be exposed to in their lifetime, and without vaccines, they have no way to fight off what they encounter. It’s imperative to start vaccinations at a young age and give them solid antibody protection.

What cat vaccinations are typically recommended, and what are they for?

  • Rabies – This is highly recommended and required by law for all domestic cats in the United States. The rabies vaccination starts when they are a kitten and continues throughout their life.
  • Feline Viral Rhinotracheitis, Calicivirus, and Panleukopenia – This combination vaccine covers upper respiratory infections common in cats. Since these are viral, they can be inadvertently brought into the home from outside. Even if you have an indoor cat, we recommend protecting them against these viral infections every year.
  • Feline Leukemia Virus – Bite wounds can transmit this from cat to cat. This is more of an issue for cats in catteries or that go outside. However, the American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends that all cats get the initial feline leukemia vaccine series and the 1-year booster, and then additional boosters only if they're going to be outside.

We recommend these core vaccines at a bare minimum, covering the most life-threatening illnesses and those your cat will most likely be exposed to.

Cat held by female veterinarian for exam.

What is the vaccination schedule for kittens, as opposed to adult and senior cats?

Kittens receive their initial vaccines at eight weeks after testing to ensure they’re not already carrying the feline leukemia virus since they can contract that from their mothers. Feline leukemia and distemper are done at eight weeks, with boosters every four weeks for a total of three doses for feline distemper and two doses for feline leukemia. Then they receive the rabies vaccine at 16 weeks, with an annual booster.

Adult cats fall into the “annually thereafter” category. Assuming an adult cat received vaccinations as a kitten, they would require annual revaccination for most pathogens for the rest of their life. If an adult cat has never been vaccinated, they’ll receive their first vaccines immediately, followed by boosters in three to four weeks and annually after that.

Regarding senior cats, there is considerable debate over vaccines. Some owners question if they need to continue with vaccines once their cat reaches 12-14 years of age and has received annual boosters, which is both a fair and tough one to answer. We recommend that you continue vaccinating, although your cat is less susceptible to pathogens as they age since they have built antibodies. However, much like elderly humans, an older cat’s immune system is not as viable as it once was, making vaccines important.

Are there risks or side effects associated with cat vaccines?

Typically, cat vaccines are very safe, with most cats receiving their vaccines and experiencing no side effects.

In rare cases, a cat can have an anaphylactic reaction, which is an allergic reaction to a vaccine that may cause:

  • Fever
  • Facial swelling
  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

If any of those symptoms present, owners should bring their cat back to Main Street Veterinary Hospital immediately, and future vaccinations will be reconsidered. This is why it’s so essential that all cats that can be vaccinated are vaccinated, so the occasional cat that cannot is still protected by other cats in the area being vaccinated.

Aside from the rare anaphylactic reaction, some cats can be a bit lethargic following vaccinations, and some are prone to developing a type of sarcoma at the vaccine site. Side effects are rare, and the potential for these diseases is high if not vaccinated; therefore, the benefits outweigh any potential complications.

If my cat is going to strictly live indoors, do they still need to be vaccinated?

Yes, indoor cats still need to be vaccinated, and the rabies vaccination is required by law regardless of your cat being indoors or outdoors. Despite assuming your indoor cat is safe from rabies, infected bats have gotten into homes and biting cats. Cats can escape out an open door or window and unexpectedly come into contact with another cat or rabid animal. (Another reason microchipping your cat is also always recommended!) While the likelihood is low, it only takes one escape for an unprotected cat to become infected. Vaccinating indoor cats when they’re kittens is also crucial because their living environment may change. While you might have adopted the cat while living in a high-rise apartment with minimal opportunity for escape, you might find yourself living in a single-family home with a yard in the future.

Why is it important to avoid missing a cat vaccination?

Vaccines rely on immune memory cells, so when you booster a vaccine, you remind those cells of what this pathogen looks like and how to respond to it. If you miss boosters, your cat no longer has the proper protection and may need to restart the series to ensure adequate protection.

It’s also vital that you don't administer vaccines any closer than three weeks apart because the immune system cannot form an anamnestic response and produce adequate antibodies to that second or third set. Conversely, you don't want them to be administered more than six weeks apart. After six weeks, the antibody production will spike and then dwindle to the point that it's almost like starting again.

The AVMA has released its vaccination guidelines for cats, which can also be highly beneficial. If you still have questions about cat vaccinations, please don’t hesitate to call us at (405) 329-6555 or email us at [email protected].