Vaccinations for Your Cat

by Bruce W. Little, DVM

Most people understand that dogs need vaccinations, as well as a satisfactory place to live in the home to have happy, healthy lives. For some unknown reason, many cat owners believe their cat will do quite well without vaccinations. This, however, is untrue even if the cat spends the majority of its life inside the home away from other cats, birds and wild animals. All cats need the protection of vaccines from potential viruses, bacteria and diseases. Overall, cats need four things to live a healthy life, and provide everlasting companionship and entertainment to the family with whom it lives. The four items that are necessary for a successful human-cat relationship are:

1) Tender loving care by the entire family playing, training, bonding and providing all the necessary physical needs of the cat

2) Annual visits to a veterinarian to check the health status and prevent issues that are unhealthy for the cat

3) Occasional medications as prescribed by your veterinarian

4) Vaccinations

Vaccines help to protect your cat against specific infectious diseases by stimulating the cat’s immune system to produce antibodies that fight off a particular virus or bacteria. The immune system remembers that specific organism, and fends it off when the cat is exposed to it in the future. Without these vaccinations, cats can become seriously ill or even die. Some diseases in cats are easier to vaccinate against than others. There are five major virus infections that effect cats and two prevalent bacterial infections for which there are vaccines available.

Common Viruses for Cats

One of the most common virus infections is Feline viral rhinotracheitis, which is an upper respiratory infection that is easily transmitted and very difficult to treat. Once cats have this disease, they are carriers of the virus for life. Feline calicivirus is also a highly infectious respiratory disease. Recovered cats remain carriers, and they can infect other unvaccinated cats for the rest of their lives. Feline panleukopenia, also known as feline distemper, is another highly resistant virus that can live outside the cat’s body for up to a year. It is highly contagious with up to 100% of unprotected cats vulnerable to the disease. Feline leukemia virus, many times listed as FeLV, can result in many serious health problems in cats including cancer. FeLV is the leading cause of death in cats in North America, according to the American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP). Rabies virus effects cats, as it does all other mammals. If an unvaccinated cat decides to go for a walk in the neighborhood and happens to see a rabid skunk, rodent or other wild animal then it can become infected with the rabies virus. Once infected with rabies, there is no cure for the cat or other exposed animals including humans. Many municipal governments require cats be kept current with rabies vaccinations. Your veterinarian may also recommend vaccination for Feline immunodeficiency virus and Feline infectious peritonitis virus in those geographical areas where these viruses are prevalent.

Common Bacterial Infections for Cats

There are bacterial infections that can be harmful to cats depending on your cat’s lifestyle and risk factors. Your veterinarian may recommend vaccination against Chlamydophila, a bacterial infection of the eyes, causing conjunctivitis. This bacteria may also effect the lungs, digestive tract and reproductive tract. This disease is very contagious, especially in young kittens. Bordetella bacteria can cause respiratory disease in cats of any age. Vaccinations should be done before cats enter boarding facilities or other environments where other cats frequent.

Possible Vaccine Side Effects

It is well know that vaccinations can cause side effects in cats. Today’s vaccines are designed to be safe and effective, but occasionally there can be mild side effects. Possible side effects include injection site soreness, low-grade fever and loss of appetite. These effects are usually short-lived and cats usually overcome these effects in a day or two post-vaccination without further treatment or concern. More serious allergic reactions occur rarely, and may include vomiting, diarrhea, facial swelling and difficulty breathing. These serious reactions appear within minutes after vaccination and require immediate veterinary care. Also, although uncommon, cats may develop a tumor at the injections site months or years after vaccination. Talk to your veterinarian about any persistent lumps or swelling at injection sites on your cat. The benefits of vaccination far outweigh any possible health risks.

Vaccinate Your Cat

One of the best things you can do to help your cat live a long, healthy, happy life is to vaccinate against these common feline diseases. As a kitten, the mother’s milk provides temporary immunity from disease. After that, it is up to you and your veterinarian to provide protection through vaccination. The vaccines your cat needs will depend on the cat’s health status, age, lifestyle and what diseases are common in your geographical area. Your cat needs to be vaccinated if you travel with your cat to boarding kennels, other family homes that have cats, bring another cat into the home or allow the cat outdoors at any time. Also, if your cat is an indoor cat then it doesn’t mean it’s safe from disease. You may bring viruses and bacteria into your home on your clothing from visiting other homes. Viruses can also travel on your shoes after hiking or running through a park that contains feral cats that may be carrying disease. Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment! It may be the only cure in some cases.

For more information, please visit:

American Association of Feline Practitioners (AAFP) Feline Vaccine Guidelines

Catalyst Council

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