Thanks to recent advances in veterinary science, the number of vaccines available for cats has increased, along with vaccine safety and efficacy. With a little due diligence, you can protect your pet's health and well-being for years to come.
Why Vaccinating Your Cat Is Important
Vaccination is the single most important step you can take to protect your cat's health. - American Association of Feline Practitioners
Cat vaccination is an effective method to prevent felines from serious and possibly life-threatening medical conditions.
Vaccinations work by introducing a less potent form of a dangerous pathogen to stimulate your cat's immune system which causes it to develop antibodies specifically tailored to fight that pathogen. Once your cat is vaccinated, their immune system will recognize that pathogen and be better prepared to combat that particular disease.
Depending on the targeted disease, the vaccine will help the body prevent infection or lessen the severity of the infection and promote rapid recovery.
Core Vaccines vs. Non-Core Vaccines
The American Association of Feline Practitioners divides cat vaccines into two categories:
Core vaccines (highly recommended for most cats) Core vaccines are those recommended for all cats, no matter what environment they live in.
Noncore or optional vaccines are sometimes recommended by your vet depending on your particular circumstances.
What Vaccines Are Available for Cats
The American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccination Advisory Panel recommends that all household cats, including those kept indoors at all times, receive the following core vaccines:
Panleukopenia (feline distemper): This contagious and possibly lethal virus causes symptoms including loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and occasionally sudden death. Kittens are especially prone to feline distemper.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV): The FeLV virus is the leading cause of viral feline death. It is transmitted via an animal's saliva, nasal mucous, urine, feces, and milk. Casual contact, bite wounds, and nursing can also spread the virus. Half of cats with FeLV die within two and a half years of diagnosis.
Cats with FeLV may suffer from a compromised immune system, anemia, and cancer. The FeLV vaccination is a core vaccine for cats less than a year old and a non-core vaccine for cats one year of age and older with no risk of exposure to FeLV-carrying cats.
Feline herpesvirus (viral rhinotracheitis): This virus results in an upper respiratory infection with symptoms including sneezing fever, eye and nasal discharge, conjunctivitis, and lethargy. Kittens are particularly prone to this infection.
Rabies virus: This dangerous infection is usually spread via bite wounds. But it can also be passed to any mammal, including humans, if an open wound is exposed to the saliva of a rabid animal. Skunks, bats, foxes, and raccoons are among the most common carriers of rabies in North America. Once symptoms are evident, rabies is usually fatal.
Calicivirus: This highly contagious virus is a major cause of feline upper respiratory infections. Cats afflicted with calicivirus exhibit symptoms such as sneezing, eye and nasal discharge, lethargy, loss of appetite, and mouth sores. In rare instances, a more potent strain of calicivirus can result in inflammation of a cat's liver, pancreas, intestines, and blood vessels. This severe calicivirus strain can be fatal for half of infected cats.
Feline Leukemia Virus (FeLV): The leading cause of virus-associated deaths in cats, FeLV spreads through the saliva, nasal secretions, feces, urine, and milk of infected cats. Casual contact, bite wounds, and nursing can all transmit the infection.
Roughly half of cats diagnosed with FeLV die within two and a half years. Infected cats may suffer from anemia, immune suppression, and cancer. FeLV vaccination is considered a core vaccine for all cats less than one year of age, and a non-core vaccine for cats one year and older that have no potential for exposure to FeLV-infected cats or cats of unknown FeLV status.
Some non-core, or discretionary vaccines recommended by the AAFP for cats exposed to certain risk factors include:
Chlamydophila felis (causes feline chlamydiosis)
Bordetella bronchiseptica (causes feline bordetellosis)
Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) All kittens require a feline leukemia vaccination with the need for future boosters determined by your cat’s risk factors.
Benefits of Vaccinating Your Cat
Unvaccinated cats are at risk of transmitting diseases such as rabies, feline leukemia, and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a deadly infection that can also be avoided thanks to vaccination.
Vaccination allows your fur baby to live their best life and unexpected expenses to treat your sick kitty are stressful as well as costly.
However, while vaccines are among the most useful tools in preventive veterinary medicine, they are not 100% effective; and they don’t provide the same level of protection for every pet.
When Should You Start Vaccinating Your Cat
Kittens are at risk of infections because of their immature immune systems. When kittens are between 6 and 8 weeks old, they begin receiving a series of vaccines spread over 12 to 16 weeks. Vaccinating earlier than this is counterproductive, as kittens ingest protective antibodies in their mother’s milk which adversely affects a vaccine's efficacy.
The antibodies consumed by a nursing kitten only last a few weeks, so vaccinating little kitties at the appropriate time is vital to ensure that they are still protected from disease once the mom's antibodies wear off.
The Cat Vaccination Schedule
Kittens (up to 1 year of age)
1 year after initial series
Adult and Senior Cats (over 1 year old)
Every 1-3 years
What vaccines and how often they should be administered depend on several variables. These factors include the risk of a cat’s exposure to various pathogens, the duration of protection provided by the vaccine, the likelihood of cats transmitting disease to humans, and the relatively benign risks of vaccination, including allergic reactions, (short-term), and the development of feline injection-site sarcomas in the long term.
Kittens are ready for their vaccinations when they are between 6 and 8 weeks of age. After the first round of vaccinations, boosters are administered every 3 to 4 weeks until the kitten is 16-20 weeks old. These boosters are vital for little kitties because the immunity transmitter from their mother’s milk could render the vaccinations impotent.
Are Cat Vaccines Safe?
Vaccination is a cornerstone of preventative veterinary medicine. Vaccination protects all cats by making disease transmission less likely. However, it is important to note that vaccination can not treat a disease already in progress.
There are relatively benign risks associated with cat vaccination which include allergic reactions, (short-term), and injection site sarcomas (long-term).
For most cats, the benefits accrued thanks to vaccination far outweigh any possible risks.
Common Side Effects of Cat Vaccinations
According to Zoetis, your cat may exhibit mild side effects after vaccination, including:
These are normal reactions for your kitty after their vaccinations; any symptoms should only last a few days.
More serious cat vaccination side effects include:
Constant vomiting and diarrhea
Difficulty breathing and coughing
If your kitty exhibits any of these symptoms, contact your vet immediately.
What to Expect During a Cat Vaccination Appointment
Before administering any vaccinations, your vet will perform an exam on your fur baby to ensure they are not already suffering from some type of infection that would affect the vaccines. Your veterinarian will check out your kitty from head to tail, examining your pet's eyes, skin, teeth, gums, lymph nodes, and overall condition.
The vet will assess your cat's heart, lungs, and abdominal sounds and take your kitty's temperature. If your cat is over 8 years old, your vet will check your pet's blood pressure. If everything falls within normal limits, your vet will administer the vaccine(s) via an injectable or intranasal (up the nose) vehicle.
Can Indoor Cats Skip Vaccinations?
The American Association of Feline Practitioners Vaccination Advisory Panel recommends that all indoor cats, even if they never go outside, receive these core vaccines:
Feline panleukopenia virus
Vaccinating Older Cats
A vet will assume an adult cat whose vaccination history is unknown is unvaccinated and will order the same vaccination schedule recommended for kittens. Adult cats overdue for their vaccinations will require a booster shot, no matter how long the interval between the last vaccination.
How to Keep Track of Your Cat’s Vaccination Records
Keeping track of your fur baby's vaccination records has never been easier, thanks to apps and email reminders that make it easy to keep on top of and document your pet's vaccination history.
Keeping Your Cat Healthy with Vaccinations
Vaccinating your cat is a positive, proactive measure you can take to help your pet fight dangerous pathogens. Talk with your veterinarian about which vaccines are appropriate for your fur baby, and address any other questions you may have about keeping your kitty happy and healthy and living their best life.
Frequently Asked Questions
What cat vaccines are annual?
Although a cat rabies vaccination schedule is not considered a core vaccine by the AAFP, it is required by law in most regions. Rabies can pass from animals to humans so keeping your cat current on their rabies vaccine is a public safety issue.
Which cat vaccines are absolutely necessary?
Essential, or core vaccines include:
Feline panleukopenia virus
Can cat vaccines make them tired?
Is your cat unwell after vaccination? Not necessarily. Lethargy is a normal side effect for your kitty after their vaccinations, and any symptoms should only last a couple of days.
What is typical cat behavior after vaccination? Your cat's behavior after vaccination may include lethargy, a slight fever, and reduced appetite. Because of potential soreness at the injection site, your kitty may not feel like playing or interacting much for 72 hours or so.